Good Stuff? - Introduction

Think of the "stuff" you buy and use in any given day. You might have a chicken sandwich and a soda for lunch. You fill your car with gasoline. You call a friend on your cell phone. At school or at the office, you print out dozens of e-mails and other documents.

Now multiply these everyday actions by all the days in the year, and by the billions of other consumers worldwide. From gas-guzzling cars to clothes made in crowded "sweatshops," the result is a significant impact on the planet and the world's people.

The good news is that consumer choices also represent daily opportunities to support alternatives that are better for our health and for the environment. Businesses, governments, and concerned citizens can harness their purchasing power to build markets for less-hazardous products, such as organic foods, chemical-free cleaning products, "green" electricity, and low-emission cars and trucks.

Around the world, the consumer class—people with access to products like televisions and the Internet, as well as the culture and ideas that these media transmit—is growing rapidly. Its expansion can be measured by vast global increases in purchases of vehicles, fast food, electronics, and other emblems of modern lifestyles. According to recent estimates, 1.7 billion people— more than a quarter of humanity—have now entered the consumer class. Of that group, roughly 270 million are in the United States and Canada, 350 million in Western Europe, and 120 million in Japan.

Surprisingly, nearly half of all global consumers now live in developing countries, including 240 million in China and 120 million in India—numbers that have surged dramatically in the past two decades as globalization has introduced millions of people to consumer goods, while also providing the technology and capital needed to build and disseminate them.

In many cases, soaring consumption burdens societies with bulging landfills, soaring debt levels, and rising obesity. Meanwhile, there are still another 2.8 billion people who consume too little and who suffer from hunger, homelessness, and poverty. The challenge for the twenty-first century will be to focus our consumption not on the indefinite accumulation of goods, but instead on a better quality of life for all, with minimal environmental harm.

We at the Worldwatch Institute feel that everyday consumer choices are so important in influencing our shared future that we devoted the entire 2004 edition of our annual State of the World report to the consumer society. In that book, we examine how we consume, why we consume, and what impact our consumption choices have on the planet and other human beings.

We produced Good Stuff as a stripped-down, action-oriented companion to State of the World. Our hope is that as you learn about the 25 different consumer items described in this guide and take the Good Stuff quiz and challenge, you'll take a fresh look at your own buying choices and gain a better understanding of the hidden costs behind many of the objects you use daily.

In State of the World, we ask whether a less-consumptive society is possible, and then argue that it is essential. In Good Stuff, our goal is to provide the information and motivation you need to redefine your own relationship with the "stuff" you buy and use.

—The Worldwatch staff