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Rethinking consumption with 'The Story of Stuff'

This viral video creates a new Internet platform for the issue of environmental sustainability and best practices.

Reading about Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize this week while juggling holiday shopping gave me a severe case of cognitive dissonance about consumption. This feeling intensified today when the viral video The Story of Stuff arrived in my e-mail inbox.

'The Story of Stuff' with Annie Leonard

The Story of Stuff illustrates the consumption chain and aims to reframe our conversation from unlimited production and consumption to sustainability and equity. The video is quite engaging, and I was impressed by its simplicity and effectiveness. No flashy graphics or sensational techniques, just simple line animation accompanying a 20-minute video lecture by sustainability expert Annie Leonard.

The story of this project is an interesting case study of viral video. Leonard has more than 20 years of experience studying factories and dumps around the world--giving her deep knowledge of sustainability issues, but not exactly a visible platform to launch a movement. Enter the video: according to Leonard's blog, The Story of Stuff has been viewed by more than 100,000 people since it was launched last week.

The video exemplifies the principles from this year's business bestseller Made to Stick, which I have studied with interest. Leonard's presentation contains elements that cover all the "SUCCESs" bases: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional stories.

The fact that stuck in my mind: did you know that for every can of household trash, 70 cans of waste are generated upstream in the production process? Leonard highlights the challenges of the production pipeline, the opportunities for intervention at each step, and the fact that perhaps a pipeline isn't the best model in the first place. She introduces more sustainable alternatives; for example, asking when computer manufacturers will make it easy to upgrade to a new model without throwing out all the old hardware materials, which is something I have wondered about as well. I'd really be fine giving my Mac a brain transplant every year or two rather than buying a whole new machine.

The video's companion site offers resources and references, including an annotated script and fact sheet. If you have had your fill of shopping this holiday season, The Story of Stuff may be the antidote to your consumer agita.