The Story of (Old) Stuff

Five years ago, Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff launched a movement to “build a more healthy and just planet” by calling attention in an accessible, charming way to how thoughtlessly we acquire, dispose of, and waste stuff, and what this means in the Big Picture. Today, it has 750,000 loyal followers, including me, and three other animated videos of equal power and ingenuity.

I have my own story about stuff and it is largely about appreciating what I already own, a riff on the great UU Minister, the late Forrest Church’s admonition: Learn to want what you have.

Maybe because I am something of an antique myself, I really love my old stuff. I’m not referring to furniture and bric-a-brac I inherited, although I can get emotional about my parents’ circa 1965 Danish Modern chairs with the marks of wear and original covers that now grace my living room. By ‘old stuff,’ I mean things like the t-shirt and straw hat (pictured below), both in my life for about a quarter of a century, each with a little history of its own that makes it precious to me. Old friends, you might say.

tshirt mendocinoThe pink t-shirt I bought for about $5 on a down-market shopping expedition with a fashion- and bargain-conscious younger friend in California. Her idea of a great find was something like my t-shirt that she could pair up with her designer jeans and other pricey London fashions. In the 1990’s, it was still possible to find t-shirts made in the U.S.A., as was this one. Colors were basic, too. Pink, as opposed to Shell or Blossom, so familiar to clothing catalogues stuffed with stuff made in China today.  And, although it was a modest outlay even for the decade (equivalent to about $9 today), my t-shirt was made to last, holding its classic shape while becoming softer and more comfortable through the years. Nowadays, I wear it for exercise or as a pajama top, paired with another much-loved relic from my closet you can probably imagine without a photo. I doubt the label Mendocino on a clothing line is around anymore. But it always makes me nostalgic for California wine country and a more upbeat future for the world’s eighth largest economy.  (Today, Made in America clothing is a short list.)

Greek Straw HatFor an outing to MacArthur State Park Beach this past weekend, I wore the straw hat that lives in my vehicle waiting for just such an occasion. Circa 1990, it was purchased for a trip to Greece, to keep the Aegean sun off my face while we sailed around the islands for a week with a group of friends. My favorite island was car-free Hydra, and I wonder what our lives would have been like had we decided to jump ship. A favorite memory was the expression of disbelief on the face of Nico, our Greek captain, when we tried to explain to him what a home mortgage was. My best buddy, Susan, threaded a length of pink grosgrain through a couple of holes punched in the brim so the hat would stay on my head (same ribbon, still works). The hat is in many photos of my trip, with my then dark hair poking out around the brim. I keep my beloved straw hat going by mending little tears or holes with a fabric glue, and if the day arrives that there is more glue than hat left, I shall mount it on the wall.

Annie Leonard has returned to Green Peace International as executive director and I expect we’ll be seeing more of what she is sensational at: breaking down important facts into compelling animated stories anyone can understand. If you haven’t seen her explain the difference between “More” – that is, the endless growth paradigm some economists are stuck in, despite the finite limits of the planet – and “Better” – an economy that works for everyone and stops destroying the environment – don’t wait another minute (I’m almost done here for now, anyway).

Although Green Peace is best known for pulling stunts to embarrass corporations into changing course, Annie remains optimistic about what can be accomplished with a little bit of honey: “Corporations can apply their ingenuity to environmental progress, not destruction, and we will keep working with a broad network of supporters and allied movements to push them to do the right thing.”

We could all let them know what we think of their stuff and what it took to get us to buy it in the first place, and what it really costs and who it hurts to bring it to our shopping outlet, by not buying it.  “Shopping” in your own closet means learning to reuse, repurpose, repair, re-love what you already posses. It is one small, potent step anyone can take immediately. Besides, you’ll never know what treasures could be waiting there for you unless you look.

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