In 1949, the median new house in the US was 120 square meters (1240 square feet). At the time, that probably felt fine because people didn’t have all that much stuff; some authorities estimate that the average woman had nine complete outfits. Today, the median house is 240 square meters (2467 square feet) and its closets are jammed: the average American buys 64 new items of clothing a year and owns about 300 items of apparel. And that’s just clothing: the Los Angeles Times has estimated that the average US household has 300,000 items.
But in the West at least, the long shopping spree may be ending. Retailers have noted that these days people are spending more of their discretionary income on activities and restaurants, and less on stuff. The budget for recreation, travel, and dining out has gone up steadily over the last decade, and now tops 20.4% of household consumption, while spending on cars and home furnishings has fallen, according to HSBC data. Shopping malls now allocate 15-20% of their space to food and beverage tenants, a sharp increase from the traditional 5%, according to numerous commercial real estate reports.
Not only are people buying less stuff overall, but a growing subculture is rebelling against consumption altogether. Minimalist bloggers, tidy-up gurus, and tiny-house designers now claim millions of followers.
Nor is this only a trend in the jaded West. Many Chinese consumers are also getting less interested in buying things, according to Shaun Rein, Managing Director of the China Market Research Group. “It is not all about consumption and showing off anymore, especially among younger consumers. They are looking more for quality of life, which is pushing spending toward wellness, entertainment and more spiritual endeavors,” he says.
Are consumers just taking a breather, or is something more permanent going on?
The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, a number of economic and demographic trends seem to be leading people away from the mall and the buy button:
Broke young people. Older people have most of the money and on average, tend to buy less stuff. In the US, Baby Boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) own roughly 50% of the wealth, and their parents (the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1946) own another 33%, while Millennials (born 1981 to 1997) control just 14% and Generation X (born 1965 to 1980) roughly 4%, according to a report by Deloitte. Even in 2030, the Millennials’ share of wealth is expected to remain below 20%. In Canada, one recent survey found that nearly half of Canadians with children say their children remain financially dependent on them.
One major drag on the younger consumer is student loan debt. Forty-four million Americans owe total of $1.45 trillion for their post-high school education, and the average class of 2016 graduate took home with her diploma a $37,172 promissory note, which translates to a $351 monthly payment—money that in other times might have gone toward a car or a mortgage.
Low prices. Over-consumption, like obesity, used to be a sign of power but is increasingly a sign of powerlessness. Over the past two decades, the globalization of the clothing industry has driven down the price of clothes dramatically: the average American household now spends 3% of income on clothes, down from 12% in 1950, although closets are more packed than ever. That’s good news in practical terms but it arguably also reduces the value of clothes as a status marker.
Many products have followed a similar trajectory. As a result, more and more consumers now see “traditional marketing and branding and products as being too obvious, too shiny, too clueless, too manufactured,” says Grant McCracken, a New York-based anthropologist and cultural theorist. “Shiny goods from factories have lost their sway over us. We want things made at human scale for human scale. We want things that have patina not shine!”
Transparent supply chains. Reports of the environmental and social costs of production have also taken some of the fun out of shopping for some people. “There is a new transparency to the world economy that allows people to see that their consumption style is purchased at the cost of environmental damage and labor abuses,” McCracken says.
Digitalization. The computer and the smart phone have replaced whole rooms of electronics, and increasingly, various kinds of media, from the newspaper to the book to the TV. At the same time, technology has also facilitated what’s been called the Sharing Economy—businesses such as Airbnb and Uber that have made it easier for people to do business with each other without fear, whether that means renting out your home or accepting a ride from a stranger.
Isolation. The average household in 1950 had 3.7 people. Today, the average is 2.6. More people than ever live alone. In his book Consumption and Its Consequences, Daniel Miller, a professor of anthropology at University College London, has argued that in the end, “Social relations are the primary cause of consumption.” If this is true, one would expect people to be spending less at home and more going out – which is consistent with what is happening.
On the other hand, anti-consumption, like bellbottoms and platform shoes, is a style that keeps coming back.
“Since the 1970s, there’s been a move towards what we call post-materialist values that emerged out of the youth counterculture,” says Joel Stillerman, a professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and author of the The Sociology of Consumption. This post-materialism often incorporated an ethical component, environmentalism, and hope for some kind of psychological or spiritual relief.
But resistance to materialism has a deeper history in what is ordinarily thought of as a very materialistic society. “Simplify your life,” exhorted Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s, arguing that too many Americans lived a life “cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim.”
The minimalist trend may also tap into the tradition of the upper classes’ using asceticism as a weapon to keep a rising group from reaching the top. “Saying that I don’t need an 80-inch TV because I think it’s ugly or obtrusive is a way of asserting one’s superiority in having more refined tastes. That speaks to old class and status conflicts that go back probably to the 18th century, if not earlier,” Stillerman says.
For business, minimalism presents a challenge. What can you sell to people who’ve decided they don’t want more?
Advice. Besides the half-dozen minimalist bestsellers, there is also a market for personal disposal assistance. Throwing out your stuff might seem simple but in practice, it’s not easy to dispose of things accumulated over a lifetime. Trained consultants certified in Marie Kondo’s tidying up methodology charge $45-60 an hour to help you weed out the objects in your life that “aren’t bringing you joy.” Or a Cincinnati, OH startup, Cladwell, offers an app will help you “pare down your wardrobe and live a simpler life” for $6 a month.
Health. Headspace now has 500,000 subscribers, each of whom pay roughly $100 a year for guided meditation recordings. Fitness gadgets are also a growing business: sales of wearable fitness trackers are growing by 17% a year, and monitoring 25 million more pulses every quarter, according to IDC.
Better stuff. In the backlash against cheap and disposable, more companies are now building to last. A number of manufacturers, such as Patagonia, which makes outdoor clothing and gear, now offer unconditional guarantees for their products. Specialist contractors are also building tiny houses, 10-40 square meter (100-400 square foot) homes that are often mounted on wheels because most local building codes don’t permit such small permanent dwellings.
Other people’s stuff. From homes to cars, the Internet has made it easier to rent from private individuals than ever. Just as big companies off-loaded their risks to vendors and employees, individuals are now following suit as well.
On the other hand, if the economy continues to pick up, certain kinds of stuff may yet regain their allure. Exhibit A: Luxury watch sales are rising, according to McCracken.
In the end, however, McCracken and Stillerman both believe this anti-consumption impulse will be a long-lasting trend. “I would anticipate that there’s going to be a segment of highly educated cosmopolitan folks who are going to be attracted to this kind of thing,” says Stillerman.