There was a fascinating piece in The Guardian recently suggesting that 2001 may turn out to be the year that the UK reached 'peak stuff' – the turning point at which, after years of steady increase, the consumption of 'stuff' (the total weight of everything we use) reached it's peak and actually began to decline. The suggestion is based on analysis conducted by writer/environmentalist Chris Goodall using the little known UK Material Flow Accounts, data published annually by the Office for National Statistics. Handily, The Guardian have published some of the key data here.
The interesting thing about the data is that whilst the recession has, as you would expect, evidently had a notable depressive effect, 'UK material flow' as it's called, stopped ascending as far back as the the late 80s. We now apparently use fewer materials than at any time since records began in 1970. Since 2001, successive categories have begun to decline including the use of paper and cardboard, followed by the use of primary energy (raw heat and power generated by energy sources), the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated per person, purchases of new cars, household energy consumption, and the average distance travelled on private and public transport. Other consumption categories, it seems, have been falling for longer.
The fact that UK material flow has seemingly remained static, or even fallen, in times when GDP has steadily increased effectively means, says Goodall, that the UK has decoupled economic growth and material consumption.
No-one is suggesting that we have solved the challenge of the massive environmental impact we continue to have. As Tim Jackson points out, our investment in global commodity markets for example, means that our economy may well be still increasing resource use even if we are consuming fewer of those resources ourselves. And to quote Andrew Simms, "measures of environmental impact are only meaningful when they're related to the planet's ability to keep up". But its a somewhat radical idea, wonderfully counter-intuitive to the prevailing wisdom, and just maybe another reason to hold some hope.
Whilst I was reading it, I kept thinking about the Patagonia's 'Buy Less' campaign. For those unfamiliar with it, the campaign actively encourages people to buy less new Patagonia stuff through a partnership with Ebay to galvanize people to resell their used Patagonia stuff, as part of it's Common Threads initiative. It is, again, a wonderfully counter-intuitive idea. And one that, as Eric Lowett has said, may well have potentially significant side benefits.
Which made me think about ASOS, and their Marketplace initiative, a cross between fashion-street-blogs and Ebay which provides customers and young designers with a platform to sell their own clothing to other ASOS customers via a heavily promoted section on their website. Most retailers would've run a mile from doing this. Conventional wisdom says that if those customers buy from other ASOS customers they're not going to buy from ASOS. What ASOS have realised of-course, is that if those customers wanted to buy second hand clothes there's plenty of places where they might do that, and by facilitating a genuinely useful service for their customers they are giving them a reason to come back to the site more often, advocate what they're doing and, paradoxically, buy more stuff from ASOS. Funny how the world works these days.