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Peak Stuff And The Shift To Thrift

The headlong rush into economic progress has made almost everyone in developed nations happy, healthy and contented.

Consumerism has delivered all the stuff that everybody needs to be free.

The barometer for this universal satisfaction is the burgeoning global self-storage market.

Millions of lockers around the world filled with part-paid for stuff that tens of millions of people go and visit every weekend.

Self-storage is Ikea’s unofficial nursing home.

‘Owning’ this stuff has become a hallmark of what it is to be human. The American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen called possessions ‘badges of efficiency’.

A top end Sports Utility Vehicle is a clear badge of human efficiency. A half used bag of bamboo kebab skewers is a less efficient badge. But they are yours – and you’re storing them – for life.

Stuff ownership is increasingly dark and heavy – though the billboards say it’s light and bright. But people are now waking up to the disconnect.

Practically the consumer is tapped out – their lockers are full yet many feel empty.

The lesson is simple: being beats having. And as with all social and economic shifts this has happened very quickly.

Advertising agencies are the canary in the mine. Globally they’re in disarray – “how can we sell more fear, then comfort?” You can’t – not even digitally.

Japanese author Marie Kondo is selling millions of books on the salvation of de-cluttering. Why? Because we have had peak stuff – and people have realized.

The Western ‘consumer’ no longer wants the title. That confession has even been uttered in one of the cathedrals of consumerism.

Ikea’s ironically titled ‘Head of Sustainability’ admits that consumption of many goods is now passé: “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,” laments Mr Steve Howard.

Maybe his conscience has been pricked by the incessant, deafening shutter rattle in all those the unofficial nursing homes. Or the amount of landfill his thrifty founder Ingvar Kamprad has generated.

If ‘planned obsolesce’ is too conspiratorial then maybe a simple home truth is more palatable: ‘none of us are really rich enough to buy cheap stuff’.

Is that inconvenient?

A great Scandinavian export from the Old Norse is the word ‘thrift’ – thrífa: which means to ‘grasp, get hold of.’

Today we could say ‘to be in control’.

In Middle English thrift meant ‘prosperity, acquired wealth, success.’

If the uncontrolled rush to flat pack progress has marred the distinction between money and wealth then let’s agree on one thing: ‘thrift’ can be revisited as a timeless definition of success.

And that’s what successful people want – more time to thrive. That is true wealth.

Mottaini is an old Buddhist word conveying a sense of regret concerning waste. The expression “Mottainai!” is a stand-alone exclamation when something useful like time is wasted.

In Japanese terms the inevitable shift to thrift could be a spiritual Allen key.

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