As most developed countries continue to experience low rates of economic growth, governments and central banks struggle to find means of stimulating aggregate demand. One explanation of sluggish demand is that people on higher incomes have enough of most things. They have reached ‘peak stuff’. As the Will Hutton article linked below states:
Around the developed world consumers seem to be losing their appetite for more. Even goods for which there once seemed insatiable demand seem to be losing their lustre. Last week, mighty Apple reported that in the last three months of 2015 global sales of the iPhone stagnated, while sales of iPads tumbled from 21m units in 2014 to 16m in the same three months of 2015. In the more prosaic parts of the economy – from cars to home furnishings – there are other warnings that demand is saturated.
People on lower incomes may still want more, but with income inequality growing in most countries, they don’t have the means of buying more. Indeed, a redistribution from rich to poor may be an effective means of increasing aggregate demand and stimulating economic growth.
It’s important to clarify what is meant by peak demand for such products. It is not being said that people will stop buying them – that future demand will be zero. People will continue to buy such products. In the case of durables, people will buy replacements when products such as furniture, fridges and cars wear out; or upgraded versions as new models of televisions, smartphones or, again, cars come out; or new music tracks or films as they become available for download, or clothing as new fashions appear in shops. In the case of foodstuffs, concerts, football matches and other consumables, they too will continue to be purchased. The point is, in the case of peak demand, the demand per period of time is not going to grow. And the more products there are that reach peak demand, the harder it will be for companies and economies to grow.
If peak demand has generally been reached, it is likely that the demand for material resources will also have peaked. Indeed, we could expect the demand for material resources to be declining as (a) there has also been an increase in the efficiency of production, so that a lower volume of material inputs is required to produce any given level of output and (b) there has been a general switch towards services and away from physical goods. The graph shows domestic material consumption in the UK in millions of metric tonnes. Domestic material consumption is defined as domestic extraction of resources minus exports of resources plus imports of resources. As you can see, domestic material consumption peaked in 2004.
But, although peak demand may have been reached in some markets, there are others where there is still the potential for growth. To understand this and identify where such markets may be, it is important to step back from simple notions of consumption to satisfy materialistic demand and focus on the choices people might make to increase their happiness or wellbeing or sense of self worth in society. Thus while we might have reached peak red meat, peak sugar, peak cars, peak furniture and even peak electronic gadgets, we have not reached peak demand for more satisfying experiences. The demand for education, health, social activities, environmental conservation and a range of fulfilling experiences may have considerable potential for growth.
There are business opportunities here, whether in the leisure industry, in building networks of like-minded people or in producing niche goods that satisfy the demands of people with specific interests. But without greater equality there may be many fewer business opportunities in the mass production industries producing standardised goods.
This is not a world in which goods and services are produced at scale as conventionally measured, but a honeycomb economy of niches and information networks whose new dynamics we barely understand, even if we have a better grasp of its values.
If having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’ The Guardian, Will Hutton (31/1/16)
Steve Howard, Ikea Exec, Says The World Has Hit ‘Peak Stuff’ Huffington Post, Zi-Ann Lum (20/1/16)
We’ve hit peak home furnishings, says Ikea boss The Guardian, Sean Farrell (18/1/16)
Peak stuff: the ‘growth’ party is over. So what next? The Ecologist, Bennet Francis and Rupert Read (22/1/16)
Have we reached peak ‘stuff’? The Mancunion, Tristan Parsons (22/2/16)
Ikea senses room to grow amid ‘peak stuff’ Financial Times, Aliya Ram and Richard Milne (18/1/16)
Peak Stuff ifs insights, Janet Hontoir (21/2/16)
UK retail sales soar as Brits splash their cash on ‘fun stuff’ The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/2/16)
How less stuff could make us happier – and fix stagnation The Guardian, Katie Allen (26/4/16)
- What are the implications of countries reaching ‘peak stuff’ for (a) the marginal utility of mass produced goods; (b) the marginal propensity to consume and the multiplier?
- Give some examples of goods or services where peak stuff has not been reached.
- If peak stuff has only been reached for certain products, does this mean that there may still be considerable potential for stimulating aggregate demand without a redistribution of income?
- Would it be in the interests of companies such as Asda to make a unilateral decision to pay their workers more? Explain why or why not.
- Why may we be a long way from reaching peak demand for housing, even without a redistribution of income?
- Make out a case for and against tax cuts as a way of stimulating (a) economic growth and (b) a growth in wellbeing? Do your arguments depend on which taxes are cut? Explain.
- The Ecologist article states that “Attaining one-planet living will probably involve in due course achieving degrowth in countries such as ours: building down our economy to a safe level.” Could such an objective be achieved through a mixed market economy? If so, how? If not, why not?
- Does the Telegraph article suggest that peak stuff has not yet been reached as far as most UK consumers are concerned?