Photo by: Tim White

Photo by: Tim White

Stuffocation: The word resonates with people because we all have this issue. We all have too much stuff and it is causing some major problems.”

Londoner James Wallman knows what he’s talking about. He has been pondering the issue of ‘stuff’ for about a decade, written a book about it, and believes it will come to be seen as the defining issue of the 21st century. Not only is our obsession with stuff destroying the environment, he says, but it is creeping with insidious zeal into our minds, making us less happy and distracting us from what is truly important.

Working as a trend forecaster for the likes of Absolut, BMW, Burberry and Nike, Wallman kept bumping up against the same problem: materialistic consumption. It isn’t surprising, he says. The human race has endured centuries of not having enough food and living precariously: an absence of stuff has dominated. So now that we have entered a period of abundance, the most materially rich society in history, an understandable confusion leaves us clinging on to ‘things’ in the hope they will bring us security.

“We’ve gone from scarcity, where things were expensive and difficult to get hold of, to being able to walk into Primark and buy a pair of jeans for £8,” says Wallman.

His book, Stuffocation: Living More With Less, charts the roots of our modern day overconsumption including how business and then advertising learned how to persuade us to buy more by triggering dissatisfaction and even fear.

He writes: “It is like living in an immense, stomach-churning session of snakes and ladders, where the game never stops and where everybody is a competitor. To play this paranoia-inducing game – and it is a game we all play – millions of us spend our days and nights worrying about our place in the pecking order, and scheming to get up the ladders and avoid the snakes. The end result is millions suffering from material-focused status anxiety.”

Put simply, more stuff doesn’t make people happier.

“If you don’t own a pair of shoes, getting a pair of shoes makes a massive difference,” says Wallman.

“But if you already have five or six pairs, buying a seventh doesn’t. In fact, it takes us in the opposite direction. The more society is obsessed with material consumerism, the higher the rates of depression. Researchers at UCLA found that people with a lot of clutter in their homes had similar levels of the stress hormone cortisol to those with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

But this isn’t just about bemoaning where we are. Wallman also suggests a solution, to replace things with experiences.

“As more and more people question the system and decide that more is not better and that they will not find happiness in possessions, we will see nothing less than a cultural revolution,” writes Wallman.

Stuff and nonsense … shoppers scuffling over a TV in the Wembley branch of Asda during the Black Friday sales. Photograph: Martin Godwin

Stuff and nonsense … shoppers scuffling over a TV in the Wembley branch of Asda during the Black Friday sales. Photograph: Martin Godwin

Focussing on experiences rather than buying and accumulating will, he predicts, will prompt marketers to change their business models. In turn, this will help us choose jobs based on what we want to do rather than what we have to do to earn money to pay for things we don’t need.

“We will judge status differently. Instead of focusing on how much money someone earns or how many things they earn, we will calculate them on more experiential terms. Government policy will shift as well, with less concern for gross domestic product and the economy, and more interest in new measures of progress.”

And he believes London is one of the best places to start.

Wallman says: “London is among the most visited cities in the world. And I think this is partly because of the stories the city has, which goes to the heart of experientialism. An experience is a story that you live yourself: experiencing things gives us a story we can others, and a sense of identity. London has a rich history, skyscrapers like cartoon buildings, early morning raves, dingy comedy clubs, pop-up shops: it can be hard work living in a city, but there is also no better place for new stories.”

Now married and a father of two, Wallman offers as an example fond memories of a flat he used to share in Brixton, where he and his housemates held legendary fancy dress parties.

“The fantastic memories of those parties are what I treasure. Not the stuff we dressed up in or the building. If you went on a brilliant hen do, you don’t really value the dress you wore, you value the smiles, the jokes, the shared experience.

“We’re born naked and we’re going to die naked. The regrets of the dying? No one ever says they wish they had accumulated more stuff.”

Don’t waste your time on guilt either, Wallman cautions.

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“We’ve been brought up to be consumers, so in a sense there is no need to feel bad about it. For most people reading my book the idea is not a revelation; it’s already a niggling suspicion. But the book almost gives them permission to get rid of stuff: to act counter to how we’re taught.”

Stuff, and the development of the service industry, has also had a huge impact on our sense of community. When childcare was once supplied by family members or even neighbours and friends, it is now paid for. The coldness of such transactions – money replacing generosity, business where there was once reciprocal warmth and gratitude – has changed things.

“Paying for things is fine, but makes you a consumer, separate from people, rather than closer to them. Having a gap which is met by other people is much better for community than meeting gaps with money. One of the fascinating things happening at the moment is that we’re seeing a return to community in the form of the gift and sharing economies.”

Stuffocation is also full of practical ways to start readdressing your relationship with stuff. Putting your clothes on hangers which all face one way, could be a good start, suggests Wallman.

“Turn each one around as you wear that item, and any which remain after six months or so, consider giving to charity. Another great way to kick start a more fulfilling sense of ownership, and this is particularly relevant to London, is to work out what you pay in rent per square foot. Then calculate how much it is costing to have that cross trainer you never use in a corner of your bedroom or that many clothes in your wardrobe. That might be enough to change the way you see these things.”

Replacing things with experiences is another approach, one which “just really seems possible to lots of people,” says Wallman.

“I wrote Stuffocation to help make people to make better decisions with their time and money. But the answers are all within us. The book is just a starting point.”

Stuffocation: Living More With Less is out now.

Editor: Robbie Lockie  |  Article written by : Lucy Purdy


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