I LIKE the notion of “peak stuff” – the idea that we have sufficient already and don’t need to buy more.
Of course this is a western luxury, as there are still parts of the world where people do not even have enough food to live on, so their concept of “stuff” will be different to ours.
A boss of Ikea raised this “peak stuff” idea in a speech recently. When I heard the headline on the radio, I joined in the harrumphing chorus. He said what! The boss of Ikea thinks we have too much furniture? The instinct to jerk the knee and point a finger shaking with outrage is all very well if you are the editor of the Daily Mail, but the rest of us ought to take a deep breath.
Lungs filled and air released, let’s have another look. The facts of the matter are more nuanced. Steve Howard is not the Ikea boss but an Ikea boss – head of the company’s sustainability unit.
Beyond the novelty of a furniture boss telling us we don’t need any more furniture, Howard was actually saying something interesting. Here is it: “If we look on a global basis, 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.”
This state of affairs could be called “peak curtains” he added – which may come as a surprise to my wife and her sewing machine. The curtains keep on coming in this house.
While we are gathered here to discuss a serious matter, we cannot move on without a bit of self-assembled irreverence. I wonder if the Ikea sustainability unit came in a flat-pack with a fiddly little metal spanner. And was much swearing involved in putting it together?
Personally I feel this means I will never again have to set foot inside Ikea. Next time a visit is suggested, I will sigh sorrowfully and say that the boss of idea thinks we don’t need any more stuff, so we can just stay at home instead.
The fact that this isn’t exactly true will be overlooked when it comes to the important matter of finding reasons to avoid going to Ikea.
Yet there is still something appealing in what the Ikea man has so say. We do want too much of everything, and indeed our whole economic system is built round this insatiable desire for stuff. How often we see a businessman or politician insert their hand into the bag of spurious economic facts and pull out a sticky-bun statistic or two. Any new development, any new runway or road – all are justified because they will increase the economy by X millions or Y billions.
Mostly this calculation is based on us buying more stuff. I often feel grumpy about this. It’s as if we are being told to spend money on stuff we don’t need just to keep the economy afloat.
This matter does come wrapped in the potential for hypocrisy, it is true. We can all think of stuff we like to buy. Here are my offerings: wine and cheese, flour to make bread, bottles of decent beer, malt whisky, a good book or maybe even a bad one; CDs if you can still find them; new strings for the guitar; decent shoes or replacement Levis without the holes; a new jacket or jumper.
We can all find things we like to buy. But is more always the answer – or is the economy eventually going to overheat and explode with the effort of maintaining this endless flow of stuff?
Will Hutton, who is always worth a read, wrote in The Observer last weekend about why having more no longer satisfies us. He quoted a book I haven’t read, but one which sounds interesting.
In Economics of Good And Evil, economist Tomas Sedlacek insists we are enslaved to a defunct economistic view of the world. His thesis calls on the cumbersome-sounding concept of “humanomics” – and the idea that “happiness results from deploying our human intelligence to act creatively on nature”, as Hutton puts it.
Hutton summarises Sedlacek’s views in a neat sentence: “Most people today work in jobs they do not much like, to buy goods they do not much value.”
We always will need to spend; we will always need stuff. But the notion that we have to have more of everything is not sustainable – it’s a highway to nowhere, littered with the packaging of whatever thing it was we just bought.
As for the Ikea man, Steve Howard believes his company will have to think differently – helping consumers to recycle what they already have. Well, so long as it doesn’t involve a little spanner and swearing, I’m all for that.