UK consumes far less than a decade ago – 'peak stuff' or something else?

Patrick Collinson and Adam Vaughan The Guardian 29 Feb 16;

The amount of “stuff” used in the UK – including food, fuel, metals and building materials – has fallen dramatically since 2001, according to official government figures.

The Office for National Statistics data released on Monday reveals that on average people used 15 tonnes of material in 2001 compared with just over 10 tonnes in 2013.

The figures look at the total amount of biomass (crops and livestock fodder, wood and fish), coal, oil and gas, metal and non-metallic minerals such as construction materials used in the UK every year.

Some of the biggest decreases have been in metal ore consumption, in part because the amount of metal required to manufacture modern domestic goods such as fridges and washing machines is far lower than in the past.

UK households have also abandoned buying many resource-intensive goods common in the recent past – such as metal-heavy video recorders and hi-fi systems, vinyl records, CDs and books – as they shift to digital consumption.

In 2000, British households bought 126m CDs but this tumbled to just 54m last year, while cassettes are heading for the history books, with sales falling 99.9% since 2000.

DVD chain Blockbuster, which once operated 528 stores on Britain’s high streets, closed the last ones in 2013, pushed out by the rise of digital services such as Netflix.

The figures will spark fresh speculation that Britain and other developed economies have hit ‘peak stuff’, although some critics pour scorn on the quality of the ONS’s environmental accounts.

In January, Ikea said the appetite of western consumers for home furnishings had reached its peak and consumption of many familiar goods was at its limit.

Household spending on physical goods, including furnishings, clothing, cars and gadgets, decreased between 2002/03 and 2014, said Chris Goodall, an author of books on climate change. Households now spend more on services than physical goods, he said.

“Part of the reason for the reduction in UK material use is the growing impact of digitisation. But we are also tending to eat less food and use less water, for example.

“And across a wide range of industries, the economy is tending to use a smaller weight of materials as a result of better efficiency and because homes and offices now have pretty much all the equipment they need,” he said.

Consumption of paper and cardboard began to decline in 2001, the amount of household waste produced by each person in the UK began to fall in 2003, and consumption of water began to go down from 2004, all at a time of rising population and GDP.

The ONS figures suggest that consumption of raw materials per head in Britain is now among the lowest in Europe, behind only Spain. But Goodall added that countries across the globe are using less.

“We’re beginning to see the same in China. Steel and cement – by far the most important inputs to the economy in terms of weight – have peaked. And since China represents about 50% of world steel consumption, this has a global impact.”

Even the total weight of biomass consumed in the UK has fallen, despite a rising population. The ONS said that in 2000 the UK chomped and burned its way through 188m tonnes of crops, fish and wood, compared with 172.5m in 2013, the last year for which figures are available.

Fossil fuel consumption peaked in 2001 at 283m tonnes. In 2012 it was 249m tonnes, although this was an increase on the lows of 2008-09.

But the country’s environmental accounts can be interpreted in many ways. The switch to a service-based economy rather than a manufacturing one means Britain consumes far fewer materials and energy for every unit of economic output compared with economies such as Germany.

The amount of materials and energy that goes into making, say, an Adele music download or a shipping insurance policy in Britain are tiny compared with making a car in Germany, so it means that for each unit of economic output Britain uses relatively fewer material resources.

The ONS suggested that the link between material consumption and economic growth is “decoupling”, with Britain having become more efficient at increasing output while using fewer resources.

The ONS said: “Over the 2000 to 2013 period, resource productivity (the relationship between economic activity and material consumption) in the UK has positively increased, rising 59.4% from £1.87 per kg in 2000 to £2.98 per kg in 2013, reflecting the shift away from manufacturing towards financial and other service industries.”

But other data show British households gorging on consumer goods. Car sales hit an unprecedented 2.63m in 2015, while Primark’s UK sales have accelerated to more than £5bn as shoppers load their baskets with skinny jeans and playsuits. So are the British really consuming less?

One expert said the amount the UK consumed has increased since the turn of the millennium, but the ONS counted only raw materials and not finished products that are imported.

“The trend is upwards since 2001, if you look at the data sets they leave out. The idea that we consume less than a decade ago, as the ONS suggests, is misleading,” said Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

“It leaves out substantial amounts of material that we consume. For example, it includes metals to make cars, but it doesn’t include metal in imported cars.

“There are indications of saturation in some markets, such as with Ikea on furnishings. You do see these micro trends of peak stuff, but the idea we’re living in a peak stuff world is nuts.”

A closer analysis of the ONS figures shows a big drop in consumption of non-metallic minerals used by the construction industry, such as sand, gravel, limestone and gypsum. This collapsed from 321m tonnes in 2000 to 212m in 2013. It may be that part of the decline in overall raw material consumption stems from Britain’s chronic inability to build enough homes more than anything else.

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