It’s very fashionable at the moment to suggest we’ve reached peak stuff. The theory is, here in the mature West we no longer need any more things, that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was reached long ago and, frankly, the desire for any more possessions, can be nothing but greed.
One thing we certainly do have a lot more of these days is guilt. Currently, our guilty consciences are focused firmly on plastics, thanks to the rallying cry of David Attenborough and his Blue Planet series. But once this particular frenzy has subsided, all for the better of the planet of course, another is sure to take its place. Will it be the fashion and textile industry, for example, where poisonous waste products and multi billion ton landfill issues will upset us enough to demand action? Or might it be the waste in Hollywood film production, food waste in the restaurant business, or bottled drinks? There is no industry safe from the laser gaze of outrage our new found powers of moral judgment have given us.
It might be worth remembering our agrarian forefathers were dirt poor, hungry, over worked and with zero naval gazing time for any guilt. A hundred thousand years of poverty in preparation for a few decades of prosperity and already we’re complaining we can’t close our bathroom cabinets and have no space left in our crammed wardrobes.
So where has all this guilt and virtue suddenly appeared from? In a word, Sweden. First off we had H&M encouraging us to bring back our used T shirts. Next up we had the ‘climate friendly’ ReTuna shopping centre in Eskilstuna, whose fifteen stores specialize in refurbished second hand products. And now, not wishing to be out-virtued, Ikea is trialling a furniture rental and buy back scheme for our used Billy bookcases and any other Ikea furniture that has passed it useful-by-date. They call it ‘circularity’ and there’s no question it answers a number of difficult questions for a retail industry that is questioning its very existence right now.
Recycling, downcycling and upcycling are having their heyday. Circularity gives us the warm resonance that we’re doing the right thing, helping ease the burden on the planet, allowing us to sleep a little sounder in our beds perhaps. But realistically, the ecological benefit from buying a used coat, for example, as opposed to a new one, must surely be so miniscule as to be irrelevant. Even if we were somehow to persuade everyone in the UK never to buy a new coat ever again, any benefit to the ecosystem would be tiny compared to the loss of the coat making industry and all the jobs that it supports.
Part of the problem is that our guilty consciences have become detached from the process of manufacturing things. For most of us our working lives are spent writing emails. Every day we travel to work on crowded trains to arrive at a centrally located urban building where people busy themselves…writing electronic messages to other people in similar looking buildings across the globe. But however we frame what we do, if you follow an email thread to its logical conclusion, something, somewhere gets built or manufactured. No matter if you work in accounts, or in a public library, we are all complicit in the process of creating more stuff for consumption. And this, my friends, is how we all got so rich, and ultimately so discontented.
The smartphone is often held up as a shining example of technological convergence and a flag-bearer for the less stuff movement. Within barely a decade our little slab of black glass has replaced the: desk phone, diary, record player, camera, rolodex, fax machine, photograph album, tape recorder, encyclopaedia, newspaper, directory, road maps, radio, alarm, clock, stopwatch…the list is ever expanding. That’s an awful lot of plastic, metal, rubber and paper that no longer needs to be pulped, mined, moulded and manufactured at all, and can instead be used, presumably, for making more iPhones. Which we replace annually, by the way.
We are told that the very concept of owning stuff is outdated. As Gen Z enter the workforce they will apparently enlighten us oldies with a fresh approach to renting and sharing the things that furnish our lives.
I just don’t buy it, pun intended. While I’m not denying that Baby-boomers, Millennials and Gen Z are looking to de-clutter and simplify, I refuse to believe the desire for ownership has subsided. Treasuring something we own has been with us for at least a hundred thousand years, and it would be very unlikely indeed that in a period of less than a decade our disruptive youngsters could evolve themselves free of such a primal, territorial human instinct so swiftly. I suggest it’s much more likely to be a reaction to the difficulty in getting on the property ladder, so that in a fit of pique Gen Z have declared they don’t want to own ANYTHING! Throwing their toys out of the fully-paid-for pram, you might say.
Perhaps the dilemma we’re struggling with is partly a rejection of mass production. We don’t need any more stuff because our desires can be fulfilled so easily with cheap and accessible mass produced imports. The gap that’s left is an emotional one: the desire to own products and things with meaning and provenance, at least more meaning than what’s currently out there. Consider that now we have access to the sum of ALL human knowledge at the touch of our smartphone, we can learn about the history of denim, where to find the world’s best bagel, the rarest coffee bean etc (as well as the age, height and weight of the actor we’re watching). Turn away from the phone and how inspiring does your local department store look now? Ten years ago it was still a local mecca for ideas, treats, gifts, inspiration and perhaps a pot of tea. It would be hard to argue that today.
Desiring things may sometimes be greed, but more often than not we buy things that enrich our lives. We make an emotional contract with the products we select to say something about us. Buying something is an expression of commitment, a sign that we value having a product in our lives that says something positive about us. Renting something for show, on the other hand, whether it’s a dress or a Lamborghini, requires zero emotional commitment. If Gen Z simply want things for that Instagram moment, then they’re shallower than I thought.
The human condition will always be to want something better and that’s a good thing as it’s the very fuel of our ingenuity. But today, I believe we want, not just more stuff, but better, more worthy products that much of the high street has failed to deliver. So, let’s stop pretending we’re turning our backs on consumerism, when in reality, just like H&M and Ikea, we’re all in the business of producing more stuff. Instead, let’s celebrate the fact we’ve never had it so good and start producing, selling and, most importantly, demanding better stuff .
When we walk into a fast-fashion superstore and grimace in disgust at the show of blatant consumerism, we are judging others rather than ourselves. As Stephen Pinker says in his powerful new tome ‘Enlightenment Now’, consumerism is the other guy’s consumption.