We need new rules, and that is in fact what the European Commission is allegedly now working on. Have we, in terms of consumption, reached a peak - peak stuff - and will we  start consuming less from now on? That would really be a breakthrough.

Peak stuff

The biggest sustainability problem can be summarised quite simply by means of an equation that was pioneered as early as in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich in his book The population bomb. The human impact on the biosphere is due to three simple factors: the number of people, material consumption per person and the environmental impact of each product that is consumed:

Population size X stuff per person X environmental impact of stuff.

Very straightforward. ‘Peak stuff’ is the point at which the amount of stuff sold in the world has reached its peak.

It is probably best if we leave the issue of population size alone for now. Any mention of population politics is tantamount to committing suicide. What we should discuss, are the two other factors. First, the environmental impact of the stuff that we use and consume, and second, the amount of stuff.

Sustainability policies often focus mainly on the environmental impact of stuff. We have made some progress in this respect in recent years. For instance, we have succeeded in making aluminium cans considerably lighter. And we have managed to make combustion engines much more efficient and therefore less polluting. Paint production, for instance, has become relatively cleaner. But ultimately, this does not necessarily enhance sustainability.

Out of fashion, but still perfectly usable. Photo by Sara Kurfess.

The other factor in the equation, the amount of stuff per person, actually has a much bigger impact. There are two reasons for this.

First, it negates part of the sustainability gains. Cars, for instance, have become much heavier and this has only increased their environmental impact. And worse: SUVs and similar heavy cars on average use 25% more fuel than normal cars.

Second, the amount of stuff is only increasing. Producing more sustainable cans is all very well, but if the number of cans quadruples, we have not really gained anything. And of course the same applies to electronics, clothing, cars and other consumer goods that are produced worldwide and the volume of which has only increased in the past few decades, despite the shift from goods to services. And of course a significant part of the increase in the amount of stuff is accounted for by products that are becoming obsolete or are going out of fashion, but are still perfectly usable. Producers are doing everything they can to postpone peak stuff. Because peak stuff would be detrimental to their revenue model.

European ambitions

Allegedly, in March the European Commission will propose drastic measures to reach peak stuff and thus accelerate the creation of the circular economy. This would involve rules to ensure that equipment, such as mobile phones, becomes easier to repair, that batteries become easily replaceable and that warranty periods for products are extended.

The ultimate goal: less stuff! And that is a good thing, because the evolution towards a sustainable economy is not so much about the (sustainable) nature of products, but rather about their quantity.

Real peak stuff

But that is not all that is needed. Because even if products were to last longer, would we really not buy new stuff with the money that we would save, just because we can? And then of course we have the manufacturers, who would definitely try and seduce us to still buy that new and improved model.

Real peak stuff involves more than making products sustainable and introducing rules on warranty periods and repairability. We will only really reach peak stuff if we learn to control our needs and at long last reach a saturation point, or perhaps if we are given a ‘stuff budget.’ But I have a suspicion that that is not what the European Commission is going to tell us.

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