Today is Black Friday, when holiday shopping hordes descend on malls across the country, and retailers hope to turn a profit as their accounting books transition from red ink to black. This year, Black Friday comes two months after Global Overshoot Day, when our planet's accounts — the ones that measure human demand on the planet's services that support our economies — transitioned the other direction, from black to red.
Each year our planet can produce a certain amount of resources and absorb a certain amount of use — nature's budget for the year. One group of scientists that keeps an eye on this is the Global Footprint Network, and by its calculations, in 2011 we exhausted the annual budget on Sept. 27, less than 10 months into the year.
That means we are currently 135% above the capacity of our planet to replace essential "services" like clean water, clean air, arable land, healthy fisheries and stable climate. Our overconsumption is eating into the very ecological systems that all the world's economies — and indeed, all life — depend on. If that is troublesome, consider that the Global Footprint folks project that in 2050 we'll be 500% above capacity unless we change how we make, use and throw away stuff.
What to do? That gets us back to today, Black Friday. The biggest ingredient in these frightening predictions — even bigger than the growth in our planet's population — is the growth in consumption of that expanding population. So one response — and one we believe will perhaps have the biggest impact — is for those of us in the overconsuming parts of the world to learn to get by with less stuff, and to ensure the stuff we do get lasts a good long time.
That's why the two of us writing this essay are collaborating. At the Story of Stuff Project we ask you to question whether you need ever more stuff — faster, cooler, bigger stuff — than you had last year. We ask you to question whether new stuff will, as the marketers want you to think, secure you love, status, entertainment and security. Or is it instead time to question the toll all that stuff is taking on your household budget, not to mention your planet's health? Is it worth it to be weighed down with consumer debt, overstuffed garages and a constant, stressful need to have the latest thing? We ask you to consider that maybe the non-stuff part of your life is really what matters: time with your friends and family, a sense of purpose in your life, working together with others toward shared goals.
At Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, we're asking you to think twice about whether to buy a new jacket for yourself, your friends or family. Maybe you can get by with the one you already have? Or if your current jacket needs repairs, bring it back and let us fix it. Or if it's sitting unused in your garage or closet, we'll help you sell it (for no charge) to someone who will use it. Or if it's really worn out, bring it back and we'll recycle it.
Patagonia exists to make and sell things people want and need. The health of the business — and the livelihoods of everyone who works for it — depends on people buying our stuff. But we are also aware that, as environmentalist David Brower said, "There is no business on a dead planet."
And at the Story of Stuff, we aren't anti-stuff — we own and use stuff — but as this holiday shopping season starts, we encourage everyone to reexamine the stuff they do get. Appreciate the work and materials and energy that went into your stuff and eke out every last drop of use before replacing it. As anyone with gray hair will confirm, there was a time when having one toaster, one winter jacket, one couch that lasted years worked just fine. If making products to last for years worked then, why can't it work now?
We both recognize that economists and politicians want you to spend money to grow the economy. We know that redesigning products and our cultural norms may seem a herculean task. But it's easier than figuring out how to fix a planet whose resources are overdrawn year after year.
There's no one easy solution to ensuring a healthy economy and a healthy environment. It requires unlikely partners, such as a retailer and an anti-consumerism campaign, finding common ground and joining forces. It requires a commitment from our political and business and civic leaders to finding more ways we can all live within the budget of the one beautiful planet we have. But most of all it requires a commitment from you, from us, from everyone who makes, buys and uses stuff, to work together for a better future.
Annie Leonard is founder of the Story of Stuff Project. Rick Ridgeway is vice president of environmental initiatives at Patagonia Inc.