If having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’

Clerk Note: Reducing our stuff and our desire for things can be very good.

By: Will Hutton
Date: 2016-01-30

Real men don’t eat quiche. Real economists don’t ask questions about happiness. The economy pumps out goods and services, all of which create jobs and incomes. There is no value judgment in such a statement, no view of what constitutes the good life. Even to invite such a question of an economist is to risk ridicule. The task of economists – a value-free quasi-science – is to make sure that as little as possible gets in the way of turning inputs into more outputs.
But around the developed world consumers seem to be losing their appetite for more. Even goods for which there once seemed insatiable demand seem to be losing their lustre. Last week, mighty Apple reported that in the last three months of 2015 global sales of the iPhone stagnated, while sales of iPads tumbled from 21m units in 2014 to 16m in the same three months of 2015. In the more prosaic parts of the economy – from cars to home furnishings – there are other warnings that demand is saturated.
At a Guardian Sustainable Business debate, Steve Howard, head of Ikea’s sustainability unit, declared: “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… peak home furnishings.” The average western consumers’ home is bulging with all the materials and goods it needs, runs the line. Hence, Ikea needs a cleverer offer to its western consumers – helping them recycle what they have, for instance. Only in developing countries have consumers the capacity to want more, but as Howard accepted, for that they need buying power, which in turn rests on the global distribution of income and wealth being fairer.
Suddenly, whether more is always the answer is being questioned, not by environmental thinktanks, but by the market. There is also the question of how much longer unfair rewards can be tolerated. The best capitalists have always known that unequal societies are not good for business – this was one of the reasons Henry Ford wanted to pay his workers well. It’s a lesson some heed today.
On Monday, Walmart will start paying a minimum of $10 an hour to its 1.4 million skilled staff in America – in conventional economists’ terms, a ludicrous and unnecessary transfer of income from capital to labour. But, facing the same retail environment as Apple and Ikea, Walmart wants to motivate its frontline staff into being more engaged and innovative. Consumers want some help in understanding and interpreting their particularities, help in answering the question of what, in a profound sense, their spending is for. When you have enough, what need is being served by having more?
Yet most people today, says Sedlacek, work in jobs they do not much like, to buy goods they do not much value – the opposite of any idea of the good life, Aristotelian or otherwise. What we want is purpose and a sense of continual self-betterment, which is not served by buying another iPhone, wardrobe or a kitchen. Yet purpose and betterment need a social context: purpose is a shared endeavour and self-betterment is to act on the world better with others. An individualistic society such as our own makes it much harder to find others with whom to make common cause.
A fall-back is at least owning one’s own home. I am beginning to wonder if one of the factors that drives the ever-upward movement of house prices is that owning your home might be that rare material possession that begins to answer the question of who you are, or at least offers a platform to begin the happiness quest. It is a good investment to boot. In these circumstances, if servicing the mortgage takes more than half of your disposable income, so what? Just buy less stuff.
Interestingly, home ownership and housing conditions don’t figure much in the varying academic and thinktank attempts to understand and measure happiness and satisfaction.
The New Economics Foundation has developed a matrix of five key performance measures to get beyond indicators of “stuff” such as GDP: job quality, wellbeing, health, environment and fairness. You can quibble with what is in the categories (housing only figures marginally in the wellbeing category, for example) but not with the attempt to address the hunger for meaning.
Living in an unfair society is psychologically hurtful; air quality does matter; a workplace where you are respected counts; acting pre-emptively to stay healthy makes sense; life satisfaction is what it is all about. These are the categories we should measure and track.
They also reflect changes in the market. Ikea and Walmart are not alone. The dynamic areas of the economy are in customised micro-production; caring/mentoring/teaching to enhance wellbeing and capability; health; sustainability in its widest sense – all enabled by digitisation.
This is not a world in which goods and services are produced at scale as conventionally measured, but a honeycomb economy of niches and information networks whose new dynamics we barely understand, even if we have a better grasp of its values. They are deeply human. A better world is struggling to emerge; if we understood it better it would emerge even faster.

The article is reproduced in accordance with Section 107 of title 17 of the Copyright Law of the United States relating to fair-use and is for the purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

No comments: