Is 'Peak stuff' bad news for product design?

16th April 2016

Is 'Peak stuff' bad news for product design?

According to a number of newspaper articles, a recent report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the amount of ‘stuff’ used per year in the UK - from food to fuel, metals to bricks – actually fell quite dramatically from 15 tonnes per person in 2001 to just over 10 tonnes in 2013. We may have reached the point of ‘peak stuff’, where material consumption goes into long term decline.

Consumerism seems as powerful as ever, and there is certainly no shortage of ‘stuff’ in the shops. So, what is happening and does it mean that fewer things are being made, putting design jobs at risk?

The good news is that ‘peak stuff’ doesn’t necessarily mean fewer products, but it does signal a significant change in the way things are made and used. For example, CD sales have tumbled from 126 million in 2000 to 54 million last year, largely because music and film are increasingly digital, not physical products. This has also had a significant impact on equipment manufacture, with the disappearance of heavy products like video cassette recorders. Similarly, stereo systems have gone from stacks that occupied half your front room to a portable speaker that links wirelessly to your phone.

This shift in the use of resources also affects our economic performance. The switch to a service-based economy means that the UK uses less material for every unit of economic output compared to economies like Germany. For example, the amount of energy that goes into each music download or financial product is tiny compared to that used to make a car, so each unit of our economic output uses less resources than more industrial economies.

Slightly more worryingly, Ikea reported in January that the appetite of western consumers for new home furnishings may have reached its peak and that consumption of many familiar goods was at its limit. Alternatively, it might just be that we've all had enough of Ikea.

Any reduction in material consumption has to be a good thing, and the shift to smaller and digital products is also positive for the environment. For designers, the challenge is to continue that trend, and to look for ways to minimise material use. Recycling is all very well, but it is even better to use less material in the first place. The opportunities are significant. More digital technologies open up new product areas and possibilities to innovate, creating more work for designers, not less. ‘Peak stuff’ could turn out to be a good thing all ways round.

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