The New Story of Stuff: Can We Consume Less?

A new study finds that Britons are consuming less than they did a decade ago, with similar patterns being seen across Europe. Could this be the beginning of a trend in developed countries? Might we be reaching “peak stuff”?

| January 11, 2012


In the past decade, Britain has been consuming less water, building materials, paper, food (especially meat), cars, textiles, fertilizers and much else.


Will rich societies start consuming less? Could wealth go green? Might parsimony become the new luxury? Heresy, surely, you would say. But it might just be possible.

Take Britain. A new study finds that the country that invented the industrial revolution two centuries ago reached “peak stuff” between 2001 and 2003. In the past decade, Britain has been consuming less water, building materials, paper, food (especially meat), cars, textiles, fertilizers and much else. Travel is down; so is energy production. The country produces less waste, too.

This analysis is not the product of data juggling by a free-market think tank. The author of the study is Chris Goodall, a fully-paid-up environmental activist and parliamentary candidate for Britain’s Green Party, but also a stat guzzler who once worked for McKinsey & Company. His books include How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.

The stats hold true even when you allow for the ecological footprint from the manufacture of imported goods. And, while the decline in resource use in Britain has accelerated since the economic crisis in 2008, the trend started long before the banking crisis. There was a decline in overall materials use of 4 percent between 2000 and 2007. So it cannot be attributed entirely to recession, and can be expected to survive economic recovery.

Brits still get through about 30 tons of stuff each per year. But the total is now back to the level in 1989. Goodall says economic growth in the UK over the past generation has not resulted in any increase in pollution. “The environment movement’s belief that growth makes all ecological problems worse may need to be re-examined,” he says.

What is so impressive is the wide sweep of resources that show very similar trends. Paper and board consumption is down 18 percent from a decade ago. In the same period fertilizer application to British fields has fallen 30 percent. Primary energy production fell 3 percent between the peak year of 2001 and 2007. Energy-guzzling cement manufacturing flat-lined for almost two decades, before crashing by a third since 2007. The calorie intake of Britons from food has been falling since the 1970s, though obesity is on the rise because people exercise less and do not burn off those calories.

tiny wee hen
1/17/2012 10:35:29 PM

0.5% may not sound like much, but we are not safe to assume it is 'meaningless'. Perhaps this fine balance of similar amounts has been behind past ice ages and hot periods in Earth's history. I tend to agree with the author that the aging population has more to do with the decrease in consumption, but I am optimistic enough to believe the younger generation now are also making efforts in that direction....obviously not all of them, but perhaps enough to make some difference.

t brandt
1/14/2012 1:36:57 AM

Falling consumerism may mean less stress on natural resources, but it also means a failing economy. The economy of the industrialized nations depends on consumerism because consumerism means jobs....Our economy also depends on cheap energy.. This is why a "carbon tax" will doom our economy.... Those few of us who limit our consumerism and live a more self-reliant lifestyle are like a player cheating at cards: we have a distinct advantage as long as we're the only one cheating. Once everyone at the table starts cheating, then we lose our advantage as the system fails....BTW- human use of fossil fuel only adds 0.5% to the total carbon budget of the planet. It's meainingless.... And eating less meat means eating more crops which takes up more natural habitat than pasture. That hurts the environment....And nowhere in this article is the impact of population changes on the data mentioned.

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