The Materials Economy

By: Tiffany Lu

Picture this: You are shopping online and is astonished that the prices are so cheap. The clothes, bags, decor, shoes seems like top quality. This doesn’t make sense, but you proceed to buy multiple items for a bargain.

So why does this happen?

There should be a logical explanation as to why the $5 sweater on Shein is that cheap. Logically, no business wants to lose profit. The end goal is to usually gain as much profit as possible.

To put simply, the production and the process to create this bag is unsustainable.

The same concept can be applied to cheap everyday goods found in grocery stores and practically most of the items produced in the market.

Lets dive deeper.

To answer this we need to talk about the materials economy : Stuff moves through a system from extraction to consumption to disposal. (Resource location, factory, market , your home..)

  • This system creates a linear system which is bad because we live on a finite earth.

  • Throughout the process the items are reacting to society, real world, economies, environment. Along the way its bumping against limits.

The People in that system:

  • The government

  • Corporations

  • Consumers

  • Workers

  • Citizens

The First stage: Extraction

  • Companies exploit Earth’s Resources which causes negative impact on other humans and organisms that also rely on the Earth.

  • Many corporations - U.S companies in particular- often venture off to developing countries and take the inhabitant’s resources.Many companies believe that people who live in a area do not own the resources, no matter how long they have been on the land. They also do not own the means of production.


  • In the past 3 decades alone 1/3 of the natural resources have been consumes.

  • Humans are exploitation and consuming at a rate in which we are undermining the planets ability for people to live here.

  • Developed countries (such as the U.S.) steal other nations (especially underdeveloped ones )of their resources.

  • Causing major displacement of people from the developing countries, due To their share of resources being taken away.

  • -In the U.S the population is consuming more resources than it is fairly/ equally allocated. We are 5% of the population yet use 30% of the world’s resource and 30% waste.

What are Third World countries?

  • Countries, in which their GDP are lower compared to the global average. sending trash to different place from the origin of the trash/waste.

  • People who live there don’t own the resources, no matter how long they have been on the land. They don’t own the means of production.

  • The production system allows for constant displacement of locals, those who have no option to move given the depletion of resources and lifestyle. (Globally 200k people are moving environments that sustained them for generations, but are moving to , usually city slums, to look for work no matter the safety risks presented.

The Second Stage: Production

  • Companies use energy to mix toxic chemicals in with the natural resources to make toxic contaminate products.

  • Few of which have been tested for heath impacts, none have been tested for synergistic health impacts. (We don’t know fullly the impact of those chemicals)

  • As long as this process continues in our industrial production system, we are keep getting toxics in the stuff into our spaces and bodies.

  • The chemicals have been proven to negatively effect breast milk/ reproduction.

  • The biggest bearer of these chemicals are usually factory workers, which women who are at their reproductive age make most of the demographic.

  • No one wants to bear that job, but when one doesnt not have a option such as lower income population.

  • Effects:

  • The U.S. industry releases over 4 billion lbs of toxic chemicals a years.

  • Not wanting to release the toxins and pollution in the U.S., the factories are often moved overseas to pollute someone else’s nations. But it comes back usually through air currents. Creating chemicals that nature can’t recycle now.

  • They don’t pay for the healthcare of the workers/ fair wages. Majority of workers, who were the displaced citizens from the same corporations taking their share of resources.

The Third Stage: Distribuition

  • The stage were the item is now transferred into a place to sell the product.

  • Goal is keep prices down, keep ppl buying and keep inventory moving.

  • The prices are low due to unsustainable labor practices.

  • Effects:

  • Companies will attempt to externalize the cost.

  • The cost to make the item is not reflected on the work it took to create the product.

  • Example: The bag can be made from unsustainable extraction of resources from different countries.It is then assembled in a unethical sweatshop. We did not pay, the people who had to be sacrificed paid, all along the way.

  • The market workers are paid unlivable low wages.

  • The employee who are responsible for making, selling, and creating the product get paid inhuman wages and get exposed to life threatening chemicals.

The Fourth stage:Consumption

  • The stage where the item is bought by the consumer.

  • Since industrialization, corporations created a society where people have less time and by seeking consumption, they gain ego, spiritual, and mental satisfaction.

  • Effects:

  • Continues to suppport the ideology- that primary way that our value is measured and demonstrated is by how much we consume.

  • Keeps the system continuing.

  • The amount of carbon that is released after an item is shipped, affects other nations by making sea level rising in another country.

  • 99% of the stuff that goes through the system is trashed within 6 months.

  • Empties your wallet.

The Last Stage: Disposal:

  • Last stage and where the items are thrown out.

  • Each U.S person creates 4.5lb garbage per day,

  • It’s either gets dumped in a landfill, a hole in a ground. Or its first turned in a incinerator and then dumped in a landfill. This is problem because the trash never goes away.

  • Polluting air, land, water which changes the climate.

  • Incineration: Burning the garbage which release those chemicals into the air or creating additional toxins.

  • Some companies just export the trash.

Recycling is never enough.

  • The core problems need to be changed.

  • Most of the garbage is designed to not be recyclable or just cannot be recycled, or have too much toxins.

  • Trash wil continue to pile up - day by day- minute by minute- second by second-

  • Ecosystems are destroyed, in order to clear area for landfills. Leaving organisms without a habitat.

  • Chemicals in the air, chemicals in our food.

  • Normalizes the act of tossing things away.

I know this is a lot to take it, but this is an incredibly important issue to talk about. Stay tuned for a light hearted blog about what we can do to combat this evil system.


Leonard, Annie. “Story of Stuff.” Story of Stuff,

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