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Are consumers getting tired of consuming?

Are consumers getting tired of consuming? thumbnail

In debates around the use of natural resources, a popular narrative is that humankind is consuming its way to disaster – going to hell in a shopping basket if you like. We can do all in our power to make manufacturing and transportation – or just the very process of existing – as efficient as possible but, however much progress we make, it will not be enough unless something is also done about demand.

It is our voracious appetite for ‘stuff’ that is at the heart of the problem.

In this context, figures published last month by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) make interesting reading. According to the ONS, the amount of raw materials – biomass, metal ores, non-metallic minerals and fossil fuels – consumed in the UK in 2013 fell from a peak of 889.9m tonnes in 2001 to 659.1m tonnes. The decrease represents a drop from about 15 tonnes to 10 tonnes per person.

There are a number of explanations for this trend. Greater resource efficiency is clearly partly responsible. While the weight of imported products has risen since 2000, the quantity of material used to manufacture those products has decreased, the ONS said. Technological progress may fuel demand for gadgets and appliances by making them more affordable and accessible, but it can also reduce consumption of raw materials. For example, the digital revolution has reduced demand for CDs and DVDs, while household goods and other devices become ever lighter and more compact as technology advances.

Post-industrial economies see a swing from manufacturing to service industries, with the resulting lower utilisation of raw materials. This is supported by further ONS data pointing to an increase in resource productivity, the relationship between economic activity and material consumption.

However, the most intriguing explanation put forward is that the UK has reached “peak stuff”, that rampant consumerism itself is slowing down.

What is true for the UK could be posited for other developed markets. Indeed, supporting the ‘peak stuff’ thesis are views expressed by Ikea’s sustainability chief, Steve Howard, about the West in general at The Guardian’s Sustainability Debate in January: “If we look on a global basis,” Howard said, “in the West, we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff,” Howard then went on to characterise saturation point in home furnishings as “peak curtains”.

If there is one organisation whose very existence would appear coupled to the unquenchable appetite of Western consumers for ‘stuff’, it must surely be Ikea. Indeed, some commentators have suggested this was a slip by Howard, in view of Ikea’s ambitious growth plans, but this seems unlikely.

Even if “peak stuff” were to render developed countries zero-sum markets, there would always be market share to be gained, even for giants like Ikea. Moreover, Western shoppers may be becoming a harder seam to mine. In comparison, however, consumers in emerging markets have barely started. For that reason, ‘peak stuff’ can only be greeted with tempered optimism on environmental grounds.

Howard linked IKEA’s acceptance of this new normal to its plans to develop business in repairing products. “We will be increasingly building a circular Ikea where you can repair and recycle products,” he said.

‘Peak stuff’ could indeed be about an end to the throwaway consumer culture, but there appear to be multiple drivers acting on consumers and the companies serving them. The growth of the circular economy is certainly a factor, but there is also the idea that people are either simply running out of room, or at the very least want to de-clutter their living space.

The growing self-storage sector in the US and Europe underlines the point. According to the Federation of European Self Storage Associations (FEDESSA), last year saw a 7.1% increase in the number of self-storage facilities across Europe. The UK market is the largest, accounting for 39% of the total number of European facilities, followed by France, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and Sweden. The biggest growth has also been in the UK, where around 50 new facilities have opened in the last 12 months.

Another consumer trend appearing to underpin theories around peak stuff is the growth in renting in the US. Clothes rental is also back in fashion, with companies such as Rent the Runway offering designer dresses on loan. And, at one extreme, Pittsburgh undertakers Lanigan Funeral Home operates a coffin rental facility, that being the ultimate in possessions that you will only use once.

Perhaps the least believable – but most fascinating – hypothesis is that people are simply becoming bored of consumerism. A visit to any shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon would suggest this cannot be so, and recreational shopping is still very much a feature of modern life. Meanwhile, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, new car sales have increased across Europe for 31 consecutive months, and numbers have almost returned to pre-crisis levels. The lure of the shiny and new still appears relatively strong.

However much wind remains in the sails of traditional consumerism, what the notion of peak stuff undoubtedly speaks to is increasing consumer discernment. Whether it is because of a lack of space, shopper fatigue or environmental concerns, people increasingly require good reasons to consume.

This is as much the case for the food and drinks sectors as any other, but the implications for companies of developed markets reaching ‘peak stuff’ are arguably less worrying than for some manufacturing sectors. First and foremost, food and drink are necessities of life. That said, the imperatives of hydration and nutrition aside, food and drink consumption is also about recreation and leisure. Indeed, food and drinks producers span the agricultural, manufacturing and leisure/service sectors in a unique way. The swing towards the service sectors should hold little fear for drinks producers, and in fact provides plenty of opportunity.

In his book, Stuffocation, futurist James Wallman writes about the move away from traditional consumerism towards “experientialism”. Millennials, in particular, are prone to thinking about spending and leisure in this way. Food and drinks products are physical consumer goods but are experiential for human beings in just about the most direct way anything could be. And, highly relevant to the ‘peak stuff’ hypothesis, then they are gone.

If people are concerned about further cluttering up their lives, consumer goods, which are by definition not retained but, quite literally, consumed, are clearly at a distinct advantage.


17 Comments on "Are consumers getting tired of consuming?"

  1. dave thompson on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 6:48 pm 

    We live in a world of single use plastic items, that last forever, sold willy nilly across all sectors of commerce, this being the norm, perhaps people are waking up to the waste. LOL

  2. makati1 on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 7:06 pm 

    Perhaps it is the inability to afford to buy that is “slowing” consumption? I didn’t see that possibility even mentioned in the article. But then a contracting economy is not allowed to be actual news is it? LOL

  3. Davy on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 7:47 pm 

    There is nothing wrong with consumerism status because our system must have it. There is no managed “degrowth-ing”. We are not transitioning to some better reality like the so called “service economy” We are struggling to maintain a minimum operating level of economic activity that allows economies of scale to produce and distribute all that we need and much of what we don’t.

    We are in a deceleration of a momentum of growth. This growth has been going on now for many decades. These macro realities are processes that behave adaptively and at a self-organizing level far above our reality. Consumerism is just the side effect of globalize market economics supported by global finance. The reality is we are mechanized cogs in a great system of development and exploitation without a conscious nor directed by reason. It just is. It is a feeding frenzy or a spawn of locust. Trying to talk about consumerism as if it is our friend is like an alcoholic going to the bar to clear his head. It is killing us and if we don’t maintain the consumption we die. That is a deadly trap of our on construction.

    At a local level I recommend any of you that can “consume” – (prep purchases) as much as you can that can be of value post collapse. Prep items and trade items for a world in decline are a must. Buy tools and goods with a future with value centering on longevity and post carbon applications. If that sounds counterintuitive to mitigating our problems it is in a sense. It is an acknowledgment there is no hope from the top down so take your little bit before it is gone. It will be gone soon no matter if you take of don’t take. I would recommend you show your higher level of your humanity and practice relative sacrifice. Don’t be greedy and don’t be a glutton but do prepare and quick.

  4. adonis on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 7:48 pm 

    or maybe that job security is no longer their people lose confidence to consume as much when they dont know if their job will be around in 6 months

  5. makati1 on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 8:48 pm 

    “Job security” is another contradiction in terms. It doesn’t exist in today’s world. Here today. Gone tomorrow. That is reality.

  6. Kylon on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 10:36 pm 

    I think a number of factors have decreased material consumption.

    1. I believe that the real cost of producing commodities and supplies has gone up are lower quality sources of resources have to be accessed. Which in turn makes the creation of goods more expensive.

    2. There is too much debt. This in turn decreases the demand for things and drains the income of everyone except individuals who own debt.

    3. There is increasing fear about the future at all levels of society. Thus there is a increased propensity to save, further decreasing demand.

    4. There have been improvements in technology/efficiency.

    5. There are more forms of intellectual property, movies, books, videogames, software, designer clothing, art that people are putting their money into. Things that contain a lot of intellectual property content in their value consume fewer physical resources while still having both greater utility and greater price. This in turn decreases consumption of raw materials while increasing the consumption of labor and services.

  7. makati1 on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 11:47 pm 

    Kylon: My reply by the numbers:

    1. But the price of goods has been going down because of the economy of scale. A 21″ TV in 1950 cost a months wage or more for the average worker. One today cost maybe 2 weeks wages. Price? Cheaper and cheaper.

    2. BINGO! DEBT is the cause. There is no money to purchase. As I said above.

    3. I would say that there is some concern by the “masses”, but for most, they have no idea. There are some saving, but that has dropped also. It is the result of number two above and paying off debt. That limits purchases, not savings. I read an article recently that stated that over 50% of Americans could not come up with $400 for an emergency without selling something or borrowing it. Does that sound like they are “saving”?

    4. Bullshit! Quality has become ‘planned obsolescence’. Once, you could buy and appliance and it lasted for multiple decades. Now, maybe 8-10 years at best. Not even repairable, IF you could find someone to repair it. As for efficiency, do you actually believe that advertising/propaganda on the stickers?

    5. Yes, I agree. Many are wasting their resources to pretend they are still “keeping up with the Jones’. They are brainwashed into believing that they “need” the latest I-toy or they will be a social outcast. Dumbed down sheep. But you should look into the ‘physical resources’ it take to make an I-pad or other access toy possible. They are NOT what you may believe. My cell phone is 8 years old. My PC 7 years old. I still use Windows 7 that came with the PC. They have been trying to hook me on W10 but that is a gimmick to get you to switch and then it doesn’t work after a while and they say you have to purchase a “Fix” from them. There are a lot od suckers out there, but I am not one of them.

    The contracting economy is caused by the drop in consumption which is caused by most consumers hitting the immovable wall of DEBT. Nothing else.

    Nuff said.

  8. Hawkcreek on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 1:04 am 

    I had an old boss tell me in 1972 that the only job security you can ever have is what you know.
    I’ve always remembered that, and have never been without a job unless I wanted to be.

  9. HARM on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 1:54 am 

    Makati1 gets it. The lowly consumer seems to be approaching Peak Debt, the service of which (aka rent paying) fundamentally limits his/her ability to service additional debt, even at ultra-low interest rates.

    Forget about “cultural shifts”, books about “Stuffocation”, simple living or the tiny house “movement”. The truth is most people want more stuff. But when they’re already indebted up to their eyevballs, lack even $400 for an emergency, and housing + student loans + medical premiums + credit cards + auto note is eating up ~99% of their income already… well, even the street junkie has his limits.

  10. marmico on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 7:02 am 

    U.S. household debt servicing ratios are near record lows. This “can’t afford stuff because of debt repayment meme” is empirically false.

  11. Chris Hill on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 7:26 am 

    The ratio may be low, but the idea that one will be better off in the future is even lower, at least among the people who actually get it.

    I reached peak stuff a while back, not sure my wife is quite there yet. I would like to have a second spade, though, then when the time comes we could both dig in the garden without having to take turns.

  12. marmico on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 7:58 am 

    Isn’t peak stuff mostly demography? The bulk of the baby boom is post peak spending years, ages 45-54.

  13. GregT on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 9:06 am 

    “US wealth inequality – top 0.1% worth as much as the bottom 90%”

    It shouldn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out why average household debt is not a good indicator of overall economic well being.

  14. penury on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 11:49 am 

    I suppose to be statistically valid one should eliminate the top five per cent and the lowest five per cent to show a true average, however with this chart you would be eliminating the most important data points.

  15. PracticalMaina on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 12:27 pm 

    Marmico by the same standard, the large millennial population would should be buying huge amounts as they are getting established. Maybe the slow move to non car owning, small house living, more cash less burden is starting to have its effect.

  16. makati1 on Wed, 27th Apr 2016 7:26 pm 

    The “slow move” is caused by debt and lack of income/jobs, not a change in mindset, unless you consider a forced change caused by government/bankster manipulation to be the cause.

  17. brough on Thu, 28th Apr 2016 5:31 am 

    What the author does not say is that this is also in backdrop of a population increase in the UK of 6.7% from 59mil. to 63mil over approximately the same period. However, I think the massive drop in raw material consumption is more to do with de-industrialisation of country as whole than with consumer habits. And of course we are about to lose another chunk of steel production. The continuing move of generating electicity from coal to the use NG and wood-chips has also helped. I do agree with some of the other comments in that income/debt ratio has just about peaked, which in turn is going to have a horrible effect on some of the UK economy, but that another story.

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