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Overconsumption and sustainability: Are we in the era of peak stuff?

21 February, 2016Janet Hontoir

There has been talk in the media lately about the concept of ‘peak stuff’ (after Howard, 2016). This is the view that, in our consumer society, we have filled our lives with too many ‘things’ that we don’t need. Mugs we never drink from, shoes we never wear or new pieces of furniture that we don’t have house room for – we all suffer from a surfeit of stuff. So why do we keep on buying things we have no use for?


Haven’t we got anything better to do with our money? Are we never satisfied? Whether it’s buying useless Christmas presents (more socks!) just because we have to buy something, making impulse purchases (have you ever used your bread-maker?) or simply forgetting that we already had it (yet another copy of Pride and Prejudice?), we’re all guilty of it.

But is that true? Many millions of people in the world who live in favelas or refugee camps wouldn’t relate to what I’ve just written – children whose best and only shoes are a pair of flip-flops, who play football with a stone and who share a reading book if they’re lucky enough to go to school. Peak stuff is a concept which shows up the inequalities of our world. Is it ethical for some to have the luxury to use newsprint and webspace to debate clever concepts while others have nothing? As global population continues to rise in the coming decades and as resources become even more scarce, will inequalities make our societies less sustainable?

Where does peak stuff fit into economic science? Demand theory is based on the concept of marginal utility but does buying things we don’t lack (the old-fashioned meaning of ‘want’) constitute ‘utility’? Diminishing marginal utility is relevant, the utility derived from an additional unit of a product eventually becoming negative. The modern science of economic psychology studies the factors which drive consumer purchases, and microeconomic purchases seem to be increasingly motivated by pressures from macroeconomic groups. People must be able to show that they have the latest model of mobile phone or car, even though the ‘old’ one is still within its guarantee period. Buying for others has become a real problem when everyone has everything and gifts have become really wacky – a wedding present of a parachute drop for two, or a zorbing session for a hen party (I haven’t made these up!) And to make matters worse, many people borrow money to finance their spending and run up unsustainable debt.

Over-consumption has great opportunity costs. It may create employment but there is no shortage of ways in which resources could be used to better effect. Carrying out more research into renewable energy, building more houses and investing in flood defences are just a few examples of expenditure which badly need more funding and which would promote a better life for future generations. So cutting personal consumption does not have to mean job losses, as human skills and talent can be channelled into more sustainable production.

There is also a huge environmental cost of pushing consumption to the limit. Resource depletion has been speeded up with no obvious benefit, too much carbon has been emitted and throughput has become faster. And how do we dispose of the unwanted surpluses? Solutions might be to recycle them or pass them through to the second-hand market, but this latter method presupposes the very social inequality that we need to reduce.

So have we reached peak stuff, in the developed countries at least? Can we reduce our seemingly endless appetite for acquiring things? Perhaps in the end consumers won’t fight the marketing on their own and producers won’t stop trying to push them to buy. Perhaps in the end the pressure of demand on supply will mean that the stuff just isn’t there.