7 Resources for Finding Out About the Secret Lives of Your Stuff

From the time we arise in the morning until after we fall asleep, we participate in a continuous cycle of using stuff that affects ourselves, other people, animals and the planet. We do what we can to buy products and use stuff that do more good and less harm, but it can be a real challenge to find out the details of how these gadgets and goodies that we buy to meet our wants and needs are produced, transported, and disposed of and whether the secret lives of our stuff reflect our deepest values. Industry and government don't make it easy to find out. But more resources to help us are being created. Here are 7 resources for finding out more about the impact of your stuff on people, animals and the earth:
  1. How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee (2011)
    From sending a text message to buying shoes to having a child to going to war, Berners-Lee’s book calculates the carbon footprint of many of our most (and lesser) common activities and product purchases. The book isn’t meant to nit-pick our every choice, but to help us get a feel for how to decide which choices tend to do more good & less harm.
  2. Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy by Daniel Goleman (2010)
    The author not only offers a life-cycle analysis of a range of stuff, but he also offers strategies and ideas for increasing transparency and power in what we buy and who and what it affects.
  3. Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning (1997)
    An exploration of the impact on people and the planet of your everyday choices, from your shoes, your coffee and your computer, to your fast food burger and your car. A curriculum guide is available for educators who want to extend the learning into their classrooms.
  4. Good Guide
    While you shouldn’t rely on this site as your only source of information when considering what products to buy (or avoid), you can get a basic idea of how some products rate in relation to others.
  5. Green America’s Responsible Shopper
    Compare the corporate responsibility records of companies in relation to the environment, human rights, labor, ethics & governance, and health & safety.
  6. The Story of Stuff
    In addition to the general video about where our stuff comes from & what happens when it goes away, there are short videos about electronics, cosmetics, and bottled water.
  7. Worldwatch Life Cycle Assessments
    While the magazine is no longer being published, you can still find out more about what it takes to create and dispose of 15 different objects, from chopsticks to batteries to candy bars to lipstick and diapers.

Unfortunately, most of these resources don't include animals in their circle of concern, so you'll need to do some additional investigating. (And none of these resources is comprehensive, so deeper digging is recommended anyway.)

Finding out more about the secret lives of our stuff is one of the required assignments for our graduate students. As they've discovered, the key is to ask lots of questions and to be persistent.

~ Marsha

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