The Story of Stuff: Follow up to Walmart Rant Post

Click on the image to view a 20 minute movie hosted by Annie Leonard about how stuff makes its way to us and more

So, do any of my fellow bloggers out there ever start writing a post and inside you’re thinking – “Don’t go there girlfriend – I want to keep my blog all sunshine and puppies?” That’s exactly what happened to me yesterday; only I couldn’t stop myself and kept writing and writing till I was ready to join Greenpeace and travel the open water in a motorized rubber raft chasing illegal fishing boats, whalers and polluters.

S**t. I did go there. But, I don’t regret it – in fact I think it’s high time I went there. There’s something about articulating an inner feeling and then all of a sudden I see similar positions all over the place. Shortly after writing my post I found the Story of Stuff movie on the net. Then, I opened my freshest issue of Ceramic’s Monthly (which I read cover to cover yesterday) and read a commentary titled quixotic? an essay on transition (not yet online) by Drew Nicklas that talked about the very same thing I so clumsily tried to express yesterday. He was a doctoral candidate studying international political economies when he discovered clay and switched gears.

I chased these discoveries by reading the Denver Post before dinner and saw an article on lackluster holiday sales. I don’t know about you, but I avoid the mall like the plague but drove by it last Saturday where there was hardly any parking to be had. How much money does the government and big business want us to spend anyway? Remember after 9-11, President Bush said “Go Shopping” to save America? Well it seems like we’re all shopped out. As a country, we’re on a vicious treadmill of spend, work, pay bills, and then spend more only to be hit with high credit card bills which causes us to get a second job or maybe tap the equity in our homes (if you have one) only to lose it in foreclosure months later when we spend even more on cheap stuff we neither need or can’t afford. I haven’t even touched on shopping as therapy or how our stuff is poisoning us with the toxins in everything from toothpaste, pet food, toys, etc. etc. or the rising cost of gas and food.

Back to The Story of Stuff which explains two different strategies that big retail corporations have perpetrated on unsuspecting citizens. It has to be two of the biggest conspiracies out there! They’re called planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. I snoozed through micro and macro economics in college so this was all news to me, though I did sub-consciously understand the underlying ideology already.

Planned obsolescence is the pre-planned retirement of an object by the manufacturer where it ceases to be functional after a time which causes consumers to replace it with another *newer* model. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been through 4 or 5 computer printers since getting my first computer 10 years ago. Printers, for example, are so inexpensive now a days, that rather than fix it which would cost the same as a new model, we go out to buy another one to replace the one that stops functioning.

Perceived obsolescence is when an object doesn’t stop working per se, but instead goes out of style. Think fashion here or maybe the latest gadget. The movie illustrates this point with women’s shoes. Clunky heels one year and pointy high heels the next. If you’re not wearing the one in style, you sort of stick out like a sore thumb. So, when faced with that dilemma, we donate our old shoes, and buy new ones every year even though our last season’s shoes never stopped functioning as were designed to in the first place. If you’re anything like me, I hold onto those shoes for a few years, hoping that they’ll come back into style until I finally donate them.

Did you know that only 1% of stuff that is purchased is still in use 6 months after being purchased? That’s pretty pathetic. Places like Walmart contribute to the cycle by offering us cheap stuff. But, as I said yesterday, this comes at a great human and environmental cost.

What to do? Spend consciously. Ask yourself if you really need xyz. Be honest with yourself. Finally, buck the trend and be yourself. If we stop caring about trying to fit in and just start being ourselves, it will be a much better world.

It’s not lost on me that I make stuff and sell stuff. I think that is really what I’ve been grappling with the past year. How do I reconcile this with our disposable society. I’m still trying to figure that out, but I do think my stuff doesn’t compete with pottery at Walmart if merely because of the price difference. Currently I sell a mug for $16.00 – which is pretty reasonable for a handmade cup. I know I’ve checked around. But, at $16.00, it gives pause to the buyer – they have to really like it to buy it and will hopefully keep it for their lifetime. I know it may sound like I’m trying to justify my position, but I’m not – I’m trying to understand how I fit into the equation without selling everything I own and beginning a life of ascetic subsistence.

Finally, the last serendipitous moment was when the ever so talented Andrea posted this little movie at the end of this post on global warming on her blog yesterday.

Humbly yours,



  • December 28, 2007 at 5:09 pm //

    I just wanted to say “sing it, sister!” (to yesterday’s post too). I totally agree. I just started a new blog on buying local and seasonal food, because the food industry is just as f’d up as the rest. Scary. Would it be okay for me to link to these posts on it?

    PS – All the gifts I bought from your etsy shop were very well received!

  • You bet, Angela – link away! I’m so glad to hear that my work was well received too :D. I’m off to visit your new blog.

  • Strangely Cynthia, i agree with most of what you have written above. I, too, shop at the thrift stores (intentionally)as a method of “protest” about paying $200.00 for a $1.98 (value) piece of clothing.
    It’s just that after reading the original Walton’s book on how he started his company and why, i think his theory escalated out of his control, not because of “bad intentions” but because of consumer greed.
    And too, i think the large retailers (chain stores) are taking a bum rap when it is companies like Haliburton, Bechtel and Main who are driving our economy. These companies are also destroying the third world economies . . . reading John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” was an eye-opener. I felt pretty naive after having read it for not thinking beyond the box, past the Walmart dilemma and to the root cause of what’s changing America.

    The focus of your last paragraphs: “It’s not lost on me that I make stuff and sell stuff. I think that is really what I’ve been grappling with the past year. How do I reconcile this with our disposable society. I’m still trying to figure that out, but I do think my stuff doesn’t compete with pottery at Walmart if merely because of the price difference. Currently I sell a mug for $16.00 – which is pretty reasonable for a handmade cup. I know I’ve checked around. But, at $16.00, it gives pause to the buyer – they have to really like it to buy it and will hopefully keep it for their lifetime. I know it may sound like I’m trying to justify my position, but I’m not – I’m trying to understand how I fit in to the equation without selling everything I own and beginning a life of ascetic subsistence.”
    hits us all as artists trying to market our products. While not wanting to overprice them, we do want fair value. (Or we’d at least like to make our expenses back!)
    Most of us are experiencing the same dilemma you’ve expressed above.
    Which is why one of my New Year’s resolutions is to do an in depth research on marketing techniques (which i’ll post on claygallimaufry as i come across them) . . . .
    I am so glad you have opened the discussion on Walmart et al …. it needs discussion and perhaps we, as united artists, can change the perception of value vs materialism.
    Good work, Cynthia.

  • Another good book recommendation, Chae, I just requested a copy from the library. When I watched the Walmart movie – a point that you just made was brought up many times – that Sam Walton wouldn’t recognize his company today. I think you’ve hit on something to – value vs. materialism.

  • December 28, 2007 at 7:29 pm //

    You are absolutely right. Also, don’t forget that the media contributes to the problem tenfold. If you don’t read that Walmart ad, you won’t be tempted to go there and ‘save’ money as you’re filling your cart with other junk you don’t need. And, if you don’t watch the commercials on TV, you won’t be tempted to run out and buy the latest XBox or ipod for your kid.

    Ironically, after I commented on your post yesterday, I went to WalMart to return a Christmas gift that someone got for me, and I thought of you! Since I really didn’t need that Dr. Phil DVD ‘How to Love’ or ‘How to Find Mr. Right’(or whatever), I exchanged it for Led Zep’s 2Cd +1DVD Limited Edition Mothership album, and I only spent an additional $1.87! I was very proud of myself. LOL!

  • December 28, 2007 at 8:08 pm //

    To me your rant, or departure from a purely art related post is in a way related to art indirectly. How we think, what inspires us and what makes us perturbed, angry, shows up in what we choose to do as artists.

    I have veered more and more to recycling things to paint on. I also don’t bother with art catalog’s unless I need paints as they are full of gidgets and gadgets and kits we don’t really need. I saw some wonderful sweater rescue items in a local gallery that I will be highlighting on the arts council blog.

    I think Chaetoons is right, it goes much deeper and wal mart is more like a symptom of a deeper problem.
    I know what I can do on an individual level, but beyond that I am not sure.

  • And you went there again, Cynthia, but with much better arguements–to my non economic mind–this time. I’m hearing what you are saying and have said the same over and over again about planned obsolesence and preceived obsolesence. The fashion industry would so hate me. I wear sneakers, period. With everything for example. Its what my orthodics fit into and that is that. No orthodics for each shoe, thank you. I got a an MP3 player and I’m not sure why, sigh, oh well! I sure don’t have the latest phone or other technical gadgets and get along quite well owning our house and buying pretty much what we need and not much else. It is a good way to live.

  • Diana, It might have been the movie – the Story of Stuff that highlighted that we are bombarded with about 3000 advertisements for stuff every single day from TV, magazines, internet, billboards, radio, catalogs, even bathroom stalls now, etc. which is an increase about 50 fold from 50 years ago.

    While we don’t have cable TV at home (we just have network and good old rabbit ears for reception), we do all log onto the Internet and I think all 3 of us (at least of the humanoid reading kind) that live in our house have magazine subscriptions – which carry a ton of advertisements. I do recycle my magazines by either posting them for free on Craigslist or what I should probably do is to donate them to a local business or community association. For example, I’m sure that the Art Student’s League could use my back issues of Art News and Ceramic’s Monthly.

    What is interesting to me is how my daughter who is 10 thinks she needs all this stuff. I don’t know where that comes from. Now that I’ve been in the school a lot as a sub – kids tell each other what they need and what the latest hot item is. It’s crazy. Woe is the kid who doesn’t know who Harry Potter is.

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Jafabrit…my rant is totally related to art, mine and everyone else’s. If you knew the way that I think – which is very circular with many tangents – it’s all related, lol. Sometimes, it takes me awhile to process information and it gurgles about a bit before I can articulate it.

    I love that you make art on recycled odds and ends! It’s what makes your work so interesting.

    I was thinking about that yesterday when I was packing up a piece of ceramic jewelry that I just sold and was scrounging for a jewelry box to ship it in (I ran out last week). I spied some card board that was ready to be carried out to the recycling bin and decided that I need to make my own jewelry boxes – I just need to find a template. Why should I spend 30$ on a hundred padded boxes that might make it to the landfall in the end?

    I think we need to start an eco artist organization!

  • Mary, you and I were posting at the same time! I’m definitely not against buying stuff – and I do love my tech gadgets. I am really advocating that people think before they buy their next thing. I’ll give you a little story about my ipod and perceived obsolescence. 3 years ago – or maybe it was 4, my husband and daughter gave me a first generation iPod Shuffle for Mother’s Day. It looks like a skinny pack of gum. I use it nearly every day when I exercise because I love loading it with music or Podcasts to keep me company when I jog or walk. Last year, my daughter received her own iPod Shuffle – only it was the newest version and I coveted hers. It was sleeker, prettier and came in an arrange of colors – not to mention that it now clips on your clothing for convenience. I thought about buying myself a newer version, but stopped myself because mine still works perfectly.

    My mom gave me money to spend for Christmas since I didn’t have too many things on my wish list. I’m still trying to decide how to spend it – but have pretty much decided to use it towards continuing to outfit my ceramic studio – equipment that I’ll use as long as I am making ceramic work. Though, my initial thought was to update my wardrobe a bit.

  • December 29, 2007 at 5:15 pm //

    Globalization, a lofty goal. The strongest among us, internationally, pull up the weakest through free and open trade.
    A nobel goal that is now seeing the unexpected consequences of unfettered greed and corrupt governments.

    Spend money on US made goods and services first. You won`t have as much “stuff”, but in the long run everyone benefits. Also, build wealth here in the US by SAVING some money and then using that savings to help US companies grow and develope so that competition doesn`t completely die.

    The problem is too large for a few paragraphs, but the only way to solve it is on an individual basis. Elected officials or the folks down the street can`t be relied on for a bail out. Each person has to figure out his own course of action, then stick to it.

    Bravo Cynthia for setting aside the pinch of sugar I usually come here for in the morning.

  • here here.
    I think unfortunately convenience is what we need to bring to the things that are recycled, etc,,,,and as long as we push forward… and it is becoming”in” to be organic and and environmentally correct….it will happen… just go there.. over and over…

  • December 29, 2007 at 6:04 pm //

    I love that you went there again, Cynthia! I think it’s important! Personally, perhaps because I’ve always been labeled as “different” or “weird”, I hate shopping! My favorite place to get things is Goodwill and flea markets. I always try to recycle before I throw things away. My husband and I get most of our furniture for free, from family members and friends that have to have the newest styles! This furniture is practically brand new and would end up in the landfill if we didn’t take it off their hands. We even take stuff we don’t need and sell it ourselves at the flea market to keep it out of the dump.

    As an artist, I love wearing clothes and shoes that are “out of style”. What’s funny is I always get comments on my “cool” clothes!

    Like Jafabrit, I always try to use recycled items for my art. I use every last scrap of matboard I have, or donate scraps to schools and arts organizations.

    I believe as artists it’s up to us to lead the way! I believe I will link to your posts on my blog as well. Someone has to get these topics out there for discussion! Thanks again for going there Cynthia!

    Oh, and thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog! Happy New Year! :)

  • Another stirring of the pot, Cynthia!Attagirl!
    Now, first up, I must say : I’ll have to go to one of the “big electronics stores” this week and get some new speakers (shame! shame!) so I can hear what’s on those video clips people are posting! (I rarely used the old speakers cos they’re tinny)
    Secondly, my next post will feature a short blurb about an artist friend who practises what she preaches about recycling.
    Light-hearted, but we are very serious about our “footprints.”
    Thirdly, most of you see my name in comments on familiar blogs;but not many know that I used to write organic gardening articles, I have long practised good, Permaculture habits and I read several blogs by similarly inclined bloggers.
    To sum up? I buy local where possible and any money saved goes to organisations like Trading Partners, Kiva, Medicins Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International.It’s not much, but it’s more ethical than giving it all to KMart! (Oh! Some goes to my local art shop. Of course.)

  • “Globalization, a lofty goal. The strongest among us, internationally, pull up the weakest through free and open trade.
    A nobel goal that is now seeing the unexpected consequences of unfettered greed and corrupt governments.”

    You’re right a little like sand – it’s enough to make a person throw up their hands and say it’s too big of a mountain to climb. I do think, little by little, on an individual basis people can change the current course. Money talks – just look at national grocery chains who have jumped onto the organic bandwagon after seeing the demand and success of places like Whole Foods.

    I will Judi, I’ll keep going there. I’m almost toying with the idea of a separate blog – though it could be a weekly blurb on my art blog. I know convenience and cost are huge factors for consumers.

    “As an artist, I love wearing clothes and shoes that are “out of style”. What’s funny is I always get comments on my “cool” clothes!”

    Cool is definitely a mind set, Paula – :D And, you’ve got it, regardless of what you wear. You know a part of the problem with clothing is that it’s a visual non-verbal form of communication. If I see someone on the street dressed a certain way – I can sort of peg their personality. If I dress like them, then I automatically feel a bit more at ease. If it’s totally different, then it can be threatening. It’s sort of a way to feel someone out before talking to them. We need a sociologist or anthropologist to help us out here. I sometimes say hello to people who I don’t know at the park or elsewhere and once had a running partner ask if I knew that person. I replied no, but we made eye contact, so it seemed like the right thing to do. It’s so disheartening to me when I try to make eye contact with other people to engage in a short pleasantry and they won’t do it, even if we live on the same street. (this happened yesterday to me)

    Thanks Jafabrit, I am too – I haven’t visited the Housewife’s blog in a long time – I think I’m overdue for a visit!

    It’s not really a shame, Dinahmow – it’s not your fault that your speakers aren’t working properly – since they were designed to become obsolete on purpose. I didn’t know that you once wrote for organic gardening magazines either – that is an interesting factoid that I didn’t know about you. It’s funny, my mom and I always talk about how my grandmother lived well into her 90′s yet didn’t eat what we consider a healthy diet – cooked with lard, ate full fat cream, butter etc. But, the one thing she always did was garden, organically before it was called that. In fact she probably wouldn’t recognize the term today if she were still alive. She had a big garden that took up most of her back yard and she canned what she wasn’t able to use immediately. My uncle who was a farmer at the time, would deliver manure to her home for her use for fertilizer. One of my favorite things to do when visiting, was for lunch or dinner which I vaguely remember her calling dinner and supper respectively was to go into the garden and hand pick the vegetables that were ripe that particular day. She gardened out of economic necessity – but it was beneficial 10 fold to her health both physical and mental.

  • December 30, 2007 at 4:24 pm //

    Thanks for the comment on my blog, Cynthia. I think it’s important for us to “go there”. Eventually, the masses will follow. One person at a time is a great way to start.

    You keep the posts coming, and I’ll keep linking to them on my blog!
    “”””””””(these are my puppies contributions to the discussion, she keeps jumping on the keyboard while I type!) :)

  • Great Post! Being that I too am an orgainc farmer (perma farmer I call it) we have always had a garden in our home. Buying stuff…we don’t do it often. Being verrrrry poor most of my life I’ve learned that stuff is a noose to hang myself from.
    Art is NOT stuff! Art is soul, and therefore not a commodity it’s an act of communication, and observance of what makes us human.
    I’m glad that you got that fancy new kiln!!! Whoo hoo I can’t wait to see what you come up with your new tools. I am excited for you.
    Happy New Year to you and yours…and love to all.
    Be the change, start at home.

  • Did watch the “stuff” video. Would have to say that I agree with some of it, but when they started bashing Eisenhower and talking about how much money is spent on the military it really turned me off. If you mother is in any way patriotic, I don’t think she will listen at all.

  • Dear Anonymous,

    At first, I thought, are you my mom or maybe my father in law? – since she does sometimes post anonymously and my FIL reads my blog.

    Let’s see, this is my whole point, I am a patriot – there’s nothing more patriotic than wanting to keep our jobs in the US, to stop poisoning the earth, to treat people humanely, to and to raise the living conditions of Americans by buying locally made products thereby adding to the local economy.

    Based on my writing and philosophy, that I grew up on a hippie commune, but I didn’t I was an Army brat – my military career father served in Vietnam as did my husband’s father so I have a keep appreciation for the sacrifices our service people make for the country. Protecting our oil supplies in the mid-east is not one of them however. (but, that’s another topic altogether)

    I also believe the movie’s reference to Eisenhower, highlighted how the government, at the time, thought that they were doing a good thing.