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55 responses to “We don’t need to buy stuff? Peak Consumerism”

  1. Steve 1

    This is the first time I have heard of the term ‘Peak Consumerism’ and I think it is evry apt. The other day I was wandering around a shopping centre and I realised there was very little in the shops I wanted, and even less I actually needed.

  2. Robert Merkel

    I suspect you’re right in one very important sense – the age of Peak Manufactured Consumer Goods, at least in the developed world, may be nigh.

    dk.au has been pointing to a number of straws in the wind along these lines.

    Partly, I think this is due to the increasingly all-purpose nature of electronics. My mobile phone is not just a phone, it’s an electronic diary, game console, still and video camera, music player, navigation device, e-book reader, and metronome.

    However, I’m sure economists would just say “yep, services continue to make up a greater portion of the economy”. I don’t think our demand for restaurant meals (or nice ingredients to cook at home), overseas travel, etc. etc. etc.

  3. Incurious and Unread


    “David Leonhart in the NYT thinks this all implies the need for a different sort of economy, one where consumer spending isn’t the engine of growth.”

    What does that mean? By definition, all economic activity is geared to consumption. Or is he referring to some growth other than economic growth? Spiritual growth, perhaps?

  4. Incurious and Unread


    OK, I get it. I’ve now read the link (I didn’t see it before). Leonhart’s “consumer spending” is referring to US household debt-funded purchases of foreign-produced, consumer durables. So a very specific class of consumption. He is not saying consumer spending should fall, just be rebalanced.

  5. tigtog

    Yet, if we think back to the generation that grew up during the Great Depression, it’s clear that shifts in behaviour and attitudes driven by economic adversity persist after that adversity passes.

    One of my grandfathers lost his business and his large home complete with tennis court during the Depression, and had to settle for a job out West as a railway station guard. The family never recovered financially.

    The other grandfather lost his clerical job and had to go bush to find labouring jobs. He had rheumatic heart damage, and the hard labour killed him within a year. My grandmother had to throw herself upon the mercy of parents who had always disapproved of her marriage in order to raise her children, and this dependence blighted her life.

    My parents are both incredibly debt-averse as a result of this combined family history, and have always been suspicious of consumerist spiels as a result.

    I think having an economy not so reliant on debt-driven consumer spending is generally a net positive for normal human beings, even if it’s not so easy for some econo-parasites to make money speculating on the markets if that happens.

  6. Steve 1

    Kim, if you made up the term ‘Peak Consumerism’ then well done. it encapsulates the economic concept of satiation where consumer demand for a product becomes satiated and the demand for the product is met.
    The fundemental purpose of the economy is to house, feed & clothe people and if that demand is being met in aggregate terms , then maybe we have reached peak consumersim.
    I believe shopping over the past 15 years or so has been used as both a social and spiritual activity by people, which has been fueled by the explosion in electronic gadgetry and the declining prices of most consumer products. We will always need to consume but maybe we will need to find new ways to feed our spiritual and social hunger.

  7. dave

    How topical! I am currently just north of the secure homeland of consumption and witnessing first hand some of its consequences. One thing that strikes me as immediately salient to this idea is the consequences that arise from restructuring the economic system particularly if you accept the fairly straightforward premise that consumer economies have driven much of modern employment.

    The slow recovery in US employment is not an accident but a consequence of this sort of structural adjustment. Yet jobs are often lauded by the right in terms of reward for individual effort, as a means to achieving economic self sufficiency. A consequence of a decline in new job creation is stress on the social fabric, particularly when established wealth continues to enjoy the fruits of past wealth creation.

    This would seem to suggest that a decline in material consumption has yet to be offset by a comparable and greater rise in some other form of commodity fetishism. This failure could indeed be a limiting condition of capitalism but we should not underestimate the consequences of such a failure given the extent of political economies in the world today.

  8. sg

    could this phenomenon just represent ageing?

  9. billie

    It was apparent that people in the 1950s wanted house, car fridge, clothes and had to settle for goods that were mass produced and of variable quality as the economy caught up with the lack of domestic spending in the 1930s adn 1940s

    As the demand for goods became sated people started to demand individualised goods. Labelled goods still are very desirable in Asia but do Australians want Louis Vuitton luggage which labels them as wankers.

    Peoples demand for goods changes over their lifetimes, people needing the most stuff when they set up house. There is pressure on homeowners to replace their kitchen, bathroom and floor coverings every 10 years. Its no accident that our teenagers are very heavily advertised to.

    The average age of Australians is 37. I think Australians have reached peak consumerism

    There are 14 million Americans out of work and about a third of the workforce are “the working poor” who earn so little they are entitled to poor relief. Employees of Walmart recieve poor relief but no health care or leave entitlements. In the past 20 years the rich have become very rich and the middle class and poor have become much poorer. The top 8% own over 80% of US wealth

  10. Mercurius

    Anecdotally, my wife and I just decided a couple of years back we were sick of replacing shoddily-made crap with more shoddily-made crap. Our main criterion for any purchase these days, is whether it will “stay bought”. This means we save up, buy carefully, and rarely. And increasingly what we buy is second-hand gear that was so well made in the first place, it’s into its third (or fourth, or fifth…) pair of hands and still going strong.

    It’s amazing how much time you get back in your life when you only have to buy things once…

  11. jules

    Hate to rain on your parade but its been used before. By peak oilers and various people in the US back around the time of the GFC. You’ll find it on Democratic Underground i’d reckon.

    Great article tho.

  12. moz

    [email protected]: we were discussing exactly this the other day, in the context of things my partner has changed about herself in the last few years. She grew up with people who buy cheap crap then … well, actually they often hang onto it long past its use by date, or worse buy it then don’t use it becase they don’t want to ruin it. I pay extra for decent stuff, and increasingly for stuff that has replaceable batteries. It irritates me when stuff is nominally repairable but in practice no longer supported (and the same part fails in every item, so you can’t combine two broken ones to get one working one).

    We’re in the transition from MDF furniture to timber furniture, but a lot of the MDF stuff is second hand (and obtained via hard rubbish or freecycle). We’re just over fragile, crappy-looking stuff, so I’m building and when necessary buying new stuff.

    Much of the time this means servicing stuff yourself, at least to the level of searching for how to take something apart and working out where to get a new battery online. But at least it can often be done.

  13. via collins

    @ 13 “could this phenomenon just represent ageing?”

    A factor for sure, but I look at my daughters and recall what I used to spend my hard-earned teen dollar on:

    – comics – on phones now
    – books – on e-readers now
    – lollies – okay, can’t get those digitally.


  14. Fran Barlow

    Given that this is observed coextensively with ageing of the population in the first world I also wonder if with age copmes consumer weariness. I’ve absolutely no evidence to make the claim, but is seem at least intuitively reasonable to think that younger people are more bedazzled by consumer goodies than older folk. Once you get to middle age (if you’re on a middle or above-middle income), you might think you have nearly everything you could want or need, or be a late adopter of some new technology.

    I also read/heard (not sure which now) that people over 45 were much more likely to prioritise saving over consumption, especially when there is doubt about employment, in part because they can, and in part because they feel a greater need to do so, since losing a job would be a much bigger challenge for them than for someone of, say 25.

    Moreover, these days most of us expect to live for perhaps 30 years after retirememt, and we are very aware that neither the pension nor super is likely to be adequate to support us in comfort for that period of time. Again, the temptation would be to save as much of our money as possible or buy assets with prospects of capital gain or dividend and so forth. A few decades ago, retirement was seen as a relatively brief period before you would die, living in penury in the meantime, unless you owned your own house and it was big enough for some of the kids to move in and support you.

    I also think the last decade in particualr has been a time when governments have made much both of debt and the analogy between the virtuous household budget where “people sit across the kitchen table and balance the books”. Neither the silliness of the analogy or the improbability of more than a handful of people doing this on a regular basis is as important as the normative claim that debt is bad and should be avoided wherever possible*.This is a value that was trampled on by the advent of credit cards but might be making something of a comeback, dovetailing with the more general view that we ought to avoid junk, surplus packaging etc …

    * Polonius’s dictum: Neither a borrower nor a lender be … along with Benjamin Franklin’s waste not, want not were very big in our household in the 1960s. My mother saved shoelaces and made us re-use our brown paper bags all week.

  15. Russell

    We poor consumers bought more and more stuff, moved to bigger houses and were able to fit in yet more comforting stuff, developed a market for “self-storage’ facilities so we could keep stuff off-site too, and then fashion decreed that houses had to look as bare as if no one had ever lived in them!

    Remember when people started to put stuff out on the verge and as you drove past you’d think “that’s a good desk” or something – now you don’t even look, it’s just a pile of rubbish on a verge. The quantity of stuff has passed a tipping point – once we wanted it, now we want to be free of it.

  16. Lachlan O'Dea

    Debt aversion sounds like a good development. It may be dovetailing with a trend of technological maturity. Just looking at the area of electronics and entertainment, there are signs that things have really slowed down. Blu Ray has done alright, but hasn’t had an impact anything like the DVD did. 3D TV doesn’t seem to have attracted much interest, many people perceive it as a gimmick to sell new TVs. Personal computers and game consoles have been more than “good enough” for the vast majority of people for years now. The only area left with the “traditional” fast upgrade cycle is mobile devices, and that space will likely mature faster than PCs did. Heck, I can’t see myself upgrading my iPhone 4 for years (and I’m a total Apple geek).

    The main thing changing consumer entertainment choices now-days is the increasing capacity and penetration of broadband networking, both wired and wireless (of course, this is a big reason for Blu Ray’s relatively low impact). While we might be replacing our physical stuff less often, I think that (thanks to broadband) we’re consuming more content than ever, and that trend will accelerate.

  17. jumpnmcar

    “””Thousands queue to check out Costco”””

    Consumerism is alive and well.

    ( thanks to Katz 4 the Daily Telegraph plug.)

  18. jules

    Kim @ 18, its great to see that attitude being taken seriously. The first poster mentioned something about wandering around shopping centres not wanting to buy anything. I first experienced that in the 80s actually, tho not every time. It felt so alienating walking around shop after shop full of useless crap, including the music and book shops. Its only got worse.

  19. sg

    Kim, I think the baby boomer cohort were intensely consumerist (anecdotal experience) and they are retiring en masse, and experiencing a sudden drop in income. I wouldn’t be surprised if, just as their sudden retirement is expected to affect workplaces (with a sudden freeing up of senior jobs) so too it might affect consumer patterns.

    Or maybe eveyrone’s stocked up on tvs now and consumerism has gone through a cycle until they all break…

  20. adrian

    It’s simple. We don’t need more and more crap.
    Unless it’s made by Apple – apparently their sales are defying the trend, which isn’t surprising.

  21. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Anecdotes ain’t data, but there’s some incidents that stuck in my mind. Firstly, Rocking Horse Records nearly going out of business. Secondly, getting off the bus on Adelaide Street and seeing a blank storefront where the Angus and Robertson’s used to be. That seems to be signs of longer term trends – people buying their books and CDs online, because local retailers are more expensive.

    But then the West End economy hasn’t been running that healthy since the floods. Trash Video, then Inspire Gallery, then Gooble Warming – all closing down.

    I think many people have become debt shy since the world economy went to shit in 2008. “Is the hammer going to fall on August the second? If not then, then when?”

  22. Sam

    It’s not hard to figure out. A lot of people realised during the GFC they were just one #@&t hair away from bankruptcy and that their past habits of spending all their income and then borrowing more and spending that, was incredibly risky.

    So now for the first time In God knows how long Australians have decided that its a good idea to save some money, just in case. Prudence is back, baby.

  23. akn

    I hope your thesis is correct Kim. For mine: my daughter is a dumpster diver who, with her housemates, has established a veggie garden complete with ducks in the middle of Sydney (the ducks are purely decorative, not for eating); I consume little and have done for years because shopping doesn’t just bore me it actually causes me distress. It’s the culture of shopping that I find physcally sickening. Moreover, I’ve spent the last week with a mate who now resides in a country town – scrounging and recycling found materials (chicken wire, pots, animal poo etc) for the purposes of establishing a subsistence garden. I well recall my grandmother’s drawer of brown paper and string; all power to the depression generation frugalists.

  24. robbo

    Best thing that could happen to our environment if people stopped buying the crap that is the epitome of consumer crazy. Just walking through a westfield (seen one seen em all) shopping centre, as a resident of a rural area, I was perplexed/gob-smacked/amused that every westfield was a replica of the other and all the people wandered aimlessly looking for who knows what.

    I just walked around wondering what the bloody hell I was doing there looking at all this crap and hoping that my effort would be rewarded with a trip to the veggie section (buying fresh veg in the bush is an almightychallenge) or perhaps the fishmongers. But I doubt that one needs a monolithic structure to purchase fresh food.

  25. Russell

    Hmm, nobody here seems to understand the joy of shopping. Maybe you’ve just been doing it in the wrong places. Have you noticed that while dreary shops like DJs complain of falling sales, the luxury end of the market is booming?

    In Perth business has moved to ‘the Paris end of Hay Street’ where Tiffany, Prada, Gucci, Burberry and the rest have opened up. Maybe ‘Peak Consumption’ means being able to go upmarket and shop at Hermes.

  26. dave

    Billie @15

    There are 14 million Americans out of work and about a third of the workforce are “the working poor” who earn so little they are entitled to poor relief. Employees of Walmart receive poor relief but no health care or leave entitlements. In the past 20 years the rich have become very rich and the middle class and poor have become much poorer. The top 8% own over 80% of US wealth

    and akn’s comment about feeling sick over the shopping culture resonate. The physical reaction is supposed to be supplanted by the subjective values we attach to consuming, the “feelgood” advertisers sell and companies like Apple make. But again the consequences of this path lead us into dangerous social territory given the declining percentage of jobs being created in the technology sector, after all technology is supposed to be “labour saving” and if you want a straight forward example look at the automation that is now mass production of things like cars.

    Maybe we are collectively waking up to the “con” in consumerism, ie, buying stuff we don’t need, going into debt for it and keeping up with the fads ultimately makes us poorer and a few others a lot richer. The supposed net benefit to society of the statistical economic growth hides the growing inequitable distribution of wealth which has distinct social consequences. The problem is are people also waking up to massive imbalances that consumerism has created within western economies or are the seductive promises of politicians and the elites who speak through their media still deluding us?

  27. Chookie Inthebackyard

    I associate Hermes scarves with a particularly dreary uptight senior manager I once knew, Russell… at the other end of the market, Etsy has led to a cottage industry revival: you can buy hand-made jumpers, cloth nappies, or washable sanitary napkins, for example.
    Most Aussie garden bloggers are organic or near-organic, which means less purchasing of pesticides. I have seen a strong upswing in interest in vegetable gardening and keeping fowls (akn’s daughter’s lifestyle is not uncommon) among my internet and RL friends in the last 10 years. I still think the widespread interest in saving water and power is largely for economic reasons, but not entirely — after all, Gen-X has seen some horrendous environmental disasters as well as victories.
    Two blogs I find interesting:
    Facebook users might also be interested in the Urban Homesteading Is A Way Of Life Not A Copyright group — started when a well-known family trademarked the term “urban homesteading”, but now often a vegie growers’ support group!

  28. BilB

    I had a wander through Kmart today while I was waiting for my slot at the hairdressers.

    The quality of most of what I saw on offer is so poor it is screaming that something is changing. The cost of Asian goods is rising. Our dollar has strengthened to keep the cost of Asian consumer goods at a steady purchasing price for wholesale buyers. In order to maintain profit margins the Kmarts and the Woolworths have taken to importing steadily lower quality goods. Even in clothing the quality of elastic has taken a nose dive meaning that more people are experiencing the discomfort of having their pants and underware slipping down through the day. Shoe uppers give out before the soles do.

    It is all about profits and greed, but the consequence is that the satisfaction that is to be achieved by the purchase of “things” these days is very short lived due to the ever declining quality. This sets us up for a real shock should the Australian dollar return to nearer its long term past average. It is possible that Asian consumer goods will decline in quality even further triggering a withdrawal from the buying cycle for many people and leading to a rediscovery of fewer, but quality, goods. The modern day “Swiss Army” utility device is the ipod style cellphone and this has led to many people spending much of their mental energy communicating excessively with each other, that is to say twittering amoungst themselves. And at the end of the decade I don’t know how satisfying that will turn out to have been.

    There are so many things that have changed in the last 50 years that it is safe to say that in the twenty first century we are also in a new age, an entirely new consciousness. And that will take some explaining but I don’t have the time now to do that. But I will reflect back on my hair cut.

    I found myself sitting back at the hairdressers still waiting for my turn and watching transfixed by the astonishing hand dexterity of a girl performing a process of applying chemicals to one womans hair. The nimbleness of the human hand (female hand) is truly breathtaking. And we take that along with all of the many other spectacular capabilities of the human body totally for granted. So I found myself reflecting that as time moves on our physical being has not changed, but what we do with our life spans changes in this technological hyper consumeristic age is changing around us in a steady progression from less to more.

    Throughout man’s development there have been pivotal developments that have enabled a higher level of performance. The advent of cooking was one. The mastery of materials and tools was another. The transition to farming from hunter gatherer, another. The mastery of machinery and metals, another. The use of energy as multiplier of human effort, setting the stage for the technological revolution on into electronics and automation, within our life times, another. And the most dramatic of all was the mastery of the use of fossil fuels particularly readily transportable fuels. The exploitation of oil has been the biggest magnifyer of human effort by far. But it will soon come to a crashing end, and what humans do next will determine whether we share the future of Kodak film with an extinction ahead of us, or adapt to “digital” (and solar) and survive. So it is possible that people are discovering that there is a better sustainable life ahead, a life that will allow us to get off the tread mill and really live. Rather than paw over the 100 kilogram a year of consumer advertising that gets suffed into our letter boxes nearly every day as we slump in the couch otherwise mesmerized by incessant repeats of the handfull of good entertainments mettered out by Fox, while planning another shopping foray to Woolworths or Harvey Norman. Will we as a species rcognise the that consumer over indulgence powered by “cheap” oil has been a false direction and make the change to a sustainable future or will we play out the oil until we collapse catastrophically when oil dependent food finally dries up.

    There are encouraging signs that our young are not as trapped in the consumer cycle as the baby boomers have become. Sport participation is at an all time high amoungst the very young, bicycles out sell cars 2 to 1, and young people spend more on inter comunication and digital enetertainments than on cheap junky plastic goods from Asia.

  29. Russell

    “bicycles out sell cars 2 to 1, and young people spend more on inter comunication and digital enetertainments than on cheap junky plastic goods from Asia.”

    Probably because these ‘young’ people keep living at home with their parents ’till their 30. Once upon a time one of the benefits of getting married was all the presents that helped you get a start in acquiring your own stuff. Now stuff is really cheap .. and look at what has happened to marriage!

  30. billie

    Jessica Irvine’s blogged about this at econogirl

  31. Helen

    There are encouraging signs that our young are not as trapped in the consumer cycle as the baby boomers have become.

    Speak for yourself. And what Russell said about those “frugal” young. Haven’t noticed it much myself.

    Isn’t it funny that all these people who make sweeping rude generalisations about everyone in a particular age cohort never find any fault with their particular cohort.

  32. Helen

    …(Spoken as a “generation Jones”er – neither BB nor Xer. I repudiate both stereotypes!)

  33. suse

    Just read the Costco story mentioned above and wondered, who on earth would make all that effort to go and buy $10 blocks of chocolate?


  34. suse
  35. suse

    Sorry again – that was $10 for tins of American popcorn (the epitome of useless consumption) and $15 for 1kg of hersheys chocolate. (Ditto.)

  36. billie

    Costco frightened me with their oversize supermarket trolleys and packs of 18 large donuts and packs of 18 oversize muffins. I reckon their customers will be waddling around the aisles shortly!

  37. Brett

    A related trend (also from an Economist blog post): the rise of the ‘threshold earner’, someone who works just enough to get by, not to accumulate all the wealth (and consumer goods, property…) they can:

    This is me. I don’t want to maximise income. I want to maximise autonomy and time for unremunerative but satisfying creative work.

    It’s me too. This year I’ve been working 3 or 4 days a week and loving it; it’s enough to survive on (and sometimes even save a little) and still have time to research and write. I dread the thought of full-time work now — unless it’s in a job where I get to do those things anyway. I have less money than I used to, but I have enough ‘stuff’ now anyway.

    But having said that, I realise that I’m fortunate to be in this position. Not every job is conducive to part-time work. And too many people have to ‘maximise income’ just to get by.

  38. Azrael

    Keep in mind (as the poster above me notes) that talk of ‘peak consumerism’ and ‘getting rid of pointless expenditure’ are features of the rich minority. You might not think that you’re in that group, but most people falsely estimate that ‘middle class’ is whatever their own income is. Most dual-income households both work out of necessity – not for buying things they don’t want, or even for buying things they don’t need. Instead they get to buy about 80% of the things they and their children ‘absolutely need’, and borrow, makeshift or steal the other 20%.

    Anyone who says ‘material goods don’t matter’ has more money than sense, and definitely more money than sensitivity to the impoverished. If material goods are the life-sucking plague that the wealthy make out, then it stands to reason that we all ought to be thanking the Murdoch’s and Bill Gates’ off this world for being so noble as to take the horrible burden of consumer expenditure away from the fortunate masses. How wonderful it is that those rich people are willing to sacrifice their own happiness in order to alleviate the rest of us of the self-harm caused by material goods! And what kind of nasty sadistic individual would support torture policies like unemployment and disability pensions – how sick must you be in order to want to force life-sucking evil money into innocent people’s pockets?

    If you have excess money, do something useful with it and give it to people who need it. Don’t sit around enjoying the benefits of financial security while complaining about its burdens – at least not in earshot of those who lack it.

  39. angela

    I’ve been a threshold earner (and partner too) for the last 18 years, working in community legal services 3/4 days pwk- still get to use my brain and get paid ( not a lot) for it. I left the city, bought land and farmhouse, grow my own vegies, fruit, nuts. Self sufficent in water, electricity, composting toilet, mortgage nearly gone. Saving up for a hybrid car. The house is furnished with high quality, second hand or recycled local timbers. When I buy, it’s for life. I loathed shopping even as a teenager / young adult which made me seem very weird to my peers and family. I spend my money at markets and local shops- you won’t see me in shopping malls and I do my best to buy very little at supermarkets. I truly hope for the planet’s sake that we have reached both peak oil and peak consumerism.

  40. Chris

    It’s me too. This year I’ve been working 3 or 4 days a week and loving it; it’s enough to survive on (and sometimes even save a little) and still have time to research and write.

    And if you’re in the higher income tax brackets surprisingly you don’t lose nearly as much income as you might first think by say working 4 days a week instead of 5. Especially once you start dropping below the income cut off thresholds for middle class welfare. Longer term you probably take a bit of a career hit, but that extra day a week off is pretty nice 🙂

  41. billie

    A friend decided to downsize so she went onto 3 days work a week. She said she was forced to work much harder on the days she was at work and took work home. She felt she was working 4 days for 3 days pay. Ultimately the stress of compressing her work into 3 days and the lower income affected her health.

  42. billie

    Brett, it sounds like being a university lecturer would suit you well, full time load and the time and autonomy to follow your interests

  43. pablo

    Peak consumerism is OK but as another ‘ism’ it might be too much for the bogan economy. I think I prefer peak stuff or should that even be ‘peak stuff-ed’. Has a kinda apocalyptic ring about it.
    Incidentally the current (this weekend) ad for Harvey Norman sales has a cheeky ‘hardly normal’ byline. As an anti-consumerist pitch maybe Gerry is onto something profound.

  44. Brett

    Brett, it sounds like being a university lecturer would suit you well, full time load and the time and autonomy to follow your interests

    Yes, the idea had occurred to me too 🙂 But unfortunately the job market is not co-operating, at least for the moment.

  45. Link

    Great post Kim.

    I didn’t see too many ‘gloomy consumers’ in Liffgow t’other day, snapping up the 75% off this that and the other. A few months ago in Scone, at the chemist, the shop assistant said to me something along the lines of “how will we know when we have enough stuff” –it just never ends”. I’m very polite in person, so I didn’t take her to task for being a bloody idiot.

    Since returning to a more urban life, I am agog at the utter shite that is foisted upon us through junk mail which comes folded in the weekly rag. And the advertising that suggests you can save money by buying something is oddly Orwellian.

    But what is China gonna do when we stop buying so much crap?

  46. Link

    Pablo that is salutory. I heard a friend years ago refer to Hardly Normals and I thought it one of the wry-est, cutest things I’d heard in a while and so have whenever possible spread the word.

  47. Ootz

    Interesting Pablo, is the ‘Hardly Normal’ to become the new normal.

    Is he still insisting on insanely Y E L L I N G at you like a seven year old though?