Buying organic, reading ingredient labels, shopping local: These are all good things to do that will make you a healthier person. But they’re not really making any real statement to the companies that make the stuff you’re avoiding with your decisions. You’ve dropped out of the system, but it continues without you (and is probably still affecting you, no matter how hard you try). That’s the argument in The Story of Change, the latest film in The Story of Stuff project (a series of online resources about our relationship to "stuff"), in which narrator Annie Leonard argues that we can’t just shop our way out of the problem of toxic, unsustainable products and supply chains—and what we can do instead.
But of course, there are plenty of people who would argue that making responsible shopping choices is an integral part of creating change. In an effort to gain more insight into all sides of the issue, I spoke to both Leonard and Dara O’Rourke, founder of the GoodGuide smartphone app and website, which offers environmental and ethical data about the products we use every day.
Co.Exist: What is The Story of Change about?
Annie Leonard: The Story of Change is a call to The Story of Stuff community and beyond to move beyond individual responses to the environmental and social crisis—it’s a call for people to engage in a deeper, citizen-led way.
Dara, at GoodGuide you’re focused more on the consumer side of the problem. On the GoodGuide website, you say that you believe that better information can transform the market place. Do we need to go beyond that?
Dara O’Rourke: We absolutely feel like information has the potential to empower people to act on their values in the marketplace and to send signals in the marketplace. And we’ve seen positive response from some companies. I think there’s a long-term trend toward the market becoming more transparent and firms being forced to admit more about the environmental and social and health impacts of their products and supply chains. But I absolutely agree with Annie and with this bigger way of framing this: that individual acts, while critical and important, are not enough and that we need collective and political action that changes the rules of the marketplace, policies, regulations, and standards.
No matter how hard we try to shop sustainably, we’ll still be exposed to things that we don’t want to have in our systems. There are certain chemicals in our products by law that we might not want there. How much can we do as consumers? Is there really a point in trying?
Leonard: I think there is a point in acting on our values. It does send messages up the supply chain. But I tend to think the biggest value that day to day decisions can make is bringing into alignment our action and our values. You feel more whole, like you have more integrity, when you’re living your values—in the grocery store, in your home, how you get to work—and from that place of greater integrity, then we can more authentically and more powerfully engage in the political system, engage in our democracy to actually solve these problems at the source.
O’Rourke: I think over the last 10 years in the U.S. we’ve seen very little action at the federal level on phasing out toxic chemicals, regulating industry, regulating products. I think for better or worse, initiatives like GoodGuide have been necessary because of a lack of government action. We’ve seen this really interesting growth in awareness of individuals for things like toxic chemicals in our products. From that individual awareness we’ve seen interesting pressure on companies—for instance, Walmart pulled baby bottles with BPA in them from store shelves.
Leonard: The real question is, how do we make sure those individual acts lead to greater involvement so we can solve these problems at the source and protect everybody? Some people use GoodGuide to find less toxic shampoo and then don’t engage more politically because they have this illusion that they are somehow protected, whereas other people would look at GoodGuide to look at toxins in shampoos and be furious and then join a campaign to get toxics out of all shampoos for everybody.
The majority of Americans support tougher regulations on toxic chemicals and keeping corporations out of government, so where’s the gap? Why isn’t this already happening?
Leonard: One issue is that our democracy has become so alienating to people, especially the post-Citizens United era where we just feel like we’re so outspent, we’re so outnumbered in terms of corporate influence, so a lot of people are just giving up on the political process. People have said, since I can’t engage politically, I’ll just try to perfect my day to day life. What we’re saying now is that we have to reengage politically, we have to get back into the political process, take our democracy back, and get it working for people and the planet.
O’Rourke: One of the things that we’ve been really trying to engage over the past few years with GoodGuide and with some of the academic work we’ve been doing at [The University of California, Berkeley] is that there are these huge gaps between what people say they care about, what their values are, and what they actually do in the marketplace. We see the same chasms between what corporations say with their CSR announcements and claims about sustainability initiatives and what they do. One reason is information, but another is giving people tools to show them that they can actually make a difference, that they can actually make a choice, have an impact, see a feedback from that, and strengthen their resolve to take another act.
Do you think there’s a role for economic incentives in making change in this space?
Leonard: I think economic incentives is one way—that could be things like subsidies or tax breaks. In The Story of Broke, we talk about the discrepancies between tax breaks and subsidies that what I call the "dinosaur economy" is getting, while clean tech companies are not getting that kind of support. Another is requiring that externalized cost be internalized.
There are other strategies as well that we need to pursue. One is better regulations and policies, another is consumer demand. There is still a fundamental obstacle if you’re talking about a publicly traded company, which is that the leadership of the companies are limited because they have to prioritize the short-term profit. One time I had a talk with Yvon Chouinard from Patagonia, and he was telling me about all of the things they were doing, and he told me that a lot of other companies were asking Patagonia to come talk to them. And I asked him, "What are the biggest obstacles that these other companies are facing?" And he said that without a doubt, the biggest obstacle to making these changes is if they’re a public company. And he looked at me and said, "If Patagonia were a public company, I’d be in jail."
Do you see a time when tools like GoodGuide aren’t needed because we’ve managed to make so much political change that toxic chemicals aren’t a big issue in our products anymore?
Leonard: I think absolutely. I feel like we are increasingly butting up against such ecological limits that we’re going to be forced into change. I wish it would come sooner rather than later, I wish it would be more strategic and compassionate. I often say we’re going to change either by design or by disaster. All of those things are going to have to come smoothly or not, and maybe we’ve already passed the point where they’ll come smoothly, but change is definitely going to come.
O’Rourke: I agree. This is doable. We are gradually moving in the right direction on the extension of rights, awareness of key issues, and people’s understanding of the connections in our ecosystems and in our world. As more and more people see it and as we’re able to exert democratic decision making over these things, we’ll say, okay, we can do things in a better way. These are solvable problems.
Leonard: That’s one of the reasons I’m optimistic. These are solvable problems. If they were unsolvable, it would be really hard to get out of bed every morning. But there’s no reason why consumer products have to be loaded with toxic chemicals. The fact that there are alternatives and the fact that people are able to connect the dots more, and the fact that the vast majority of people don’t want their babies born with 250 industrial chemicals in their blood—we’ve got the public will, we’ve got the technological alternatives. All we need is for people to get engaged politically to force it to be real.
O’Rourke: All the numbers are going up and to the right in organic, fair trade, and non-toxic product sales. More and more people are aware of these issues. We’re beginning to see the potential of collective action. It really is, can we turn these commitments into enough political power to see a change in the market and in systems of governance?