Many parents of small children will be familiar with the depressing Christmas Day rubbish routine.
Presents are unveiled. The paper is eagerly ripped off. And packaging starts to accumulate around your ankles at such a rate that you start to empathise with those flood victims you see on TV wading through their own living rooms.
Disposing of the mountains of trash that are the by-product of the joyful gift unwrapping is as much a part of the festive workload as peeling the potatoes, keeping relatives refreshed and sweeping up the tree’s pine needles. It’s estimated we collectively throw out around 100 million black bin bags full of packaging at this time of year.
It’s not a new observation of course, but nothing illustrates our materialist and ecologically insouciant economy quite like Christmas.
But is change, along with sweet notes of carollers and the whiff of mulled wine, in the air this year? One of the eye-catching business stories last week was the profit warning from the previously unstoppable online fashion chain Asos.
We all know that traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers are, as Mike Ashley put it recently, being “smashed to pieces” by savage trading conditions. But their market share was, we thought, being devoured by the internet players. Yet if the online leviathans like Asos are suffering too could that mean that we’re collectively simply buying less than we used to?
Will we look back on the Christmas of 2018 as the moment where we reached a “post-consumer moment”? Let’s reserve judgement on calling that one until we see the retail sales figures for the end of the year.
“Peak stuff” has been called before only for us to discover that “stuff” was only, in fact, taking a breather. There’s been no dip in the upward growth trajectory in UK retail sales since Ikea’s head of sustainability said we’d reached the top of the western physical consumption market in 2016.
Yet that doesn’t invalidate the concept. Maybe it’s just a question of timing. After all, it’s manifestly true that the rise of the digital economy makes the possibility of less stuff than before feasible.
There’s no need to buy DVDs or CDs anymore in the era of downloads and streaming. We can read a whole library of books on a single tablet. And Independent readers don’t need to be told that no one needs to hold slices of dead tree in their hands any more to consume a newspaper.
Presents, even Christmas ones, don’t need to be manufactured. We can gift “experiences”, whether a ride in a hot air balloon, a visit to the spa or concert tickets. Some surveys have suggested that many young people now value soul-enriching experiences more than physical possessions.
The retail sales data may also be misleading. The Office for National Statistics looked at the amount of raw material – metals, biomass, fossil fuels etc – consumed in the UK and estimates it declined from around 12.5 tonnes per person in 2000 to just 9 tonnes per person in 2016.
Some economists argue that advertising doesn’t create demand from nothing, but rather only persuades us to buy a particular brand of a good that our underlying preferences inclined us to desire anyway.
But this feels too simplistic. Before NW Ayers’ “A Diamond Is Forever” advertising campaign in the 1940s there was no mass market for diamonds in the US. And as my colleague Adam Lusher reported last week, Charles Dickens gave a push to the Christmas industry in the 1840s (even if claims the novelist “invented” it are exaggerated).
An interesting question is whether we could go in the other direction? Is it conceivable campaigns could stimulate lower consumption of physical goods, not just at Christmas but generally?
In fact we did have something along those lines recently with David Attenborough’s Blue Planet BBC series which showed how plastic pollution is throttling the oceans. This gave a significant boost to anti-plastic public sentiment and has put a great deal of pressure on manufacturers and politicians to take action.
The conditions of peak stuff are arguably in place this Christmas. But we may require nudges to get over the top.
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