Stuffocation is when your closet is full of clothes but you can’t find a thing you want to wear.
James Wallman’s influential new book Stuffocation charts how as a society we’re increasingly moving away from “stuff” to experience as a priority. The book details how we can lead happier, more sustainable lives by ending our love affair with possessions, and contextualizes our changing relationship with commodities across the century. A British author and futurist who has written for The New York Times, GQ and the Financial Times, Wallman speaks to the rising trend of experientialism we’ve seen in everything from luxury to Millennial travel. Wallman talked to us for our 10 Years of 10 Trends on this subject. Read on for his insights.
How do you explain the term “stuffocation” for people who haven’t read the book?
It’s interesting — when I meet people and they ask me what I’m doing in the States, I say, I’ve written this book called Stuffocation. They say, what is it? And I ask them, what do you think it is? Not in an excessively annoying way, I hope. And their automatic reaction is, ah, we’re suffocating with stuff. We’ve got too much stuff. They completely get it. And then it resonates with them and they start saying something along lines of, God that’s exactly how I feel! I feel that frustration as well.
So the term has a kind of innate meaning to it. For me stuffocation is that feeling when you open up your closet and it’s full of clothes but you can’t find a thing that you want to wear. It’s that frustration you get when you have to dig to find the one thing that you want to use, but to get there you have to go through loads and loads of things, piles of stuff you don’t need and don’t use. And it’s the recognition that we don’t think of “more” the way we used to — as a good thing. We think “more” now means more hassle, more to store, more to think about in our ever busier, ever more cluttered lives. More isn’t better anymore, it’s worse. We’re overwhelmed. We’re suffocating from stuff.
In the book you note that this isn’t the way things have always been. Society was used to operating from a point of scarcity, and now we have this abundance, so we’re not at all equipped to deal with it.
Scarcity was with us until after the Second World War. The U.S. is where it first started to really significantly change for a lot of people because that’s where the industrial revolution collided with the consumer revolution. Particularly in the ’20s and the ’30s.
But if you consider evolutionary psychology, we are apes. Apes who are equipped to cope with scarcity. We have mental tools that have been honed over millennia to eat as much as we can and to gather as much stuff as we can because that’s the best way to survive. If you were to go back five generations or more, you would never be more than a generation or two from starvation. Your parents would say, eat as much as you can. If there was food, you would eat it because you never knew when food was going to run out. And that worked in a time of scarcity, which is how humans existed.
But then, thanks to the Green Revolution in particular, all of the sudden in the 20th century we had calorific abundance. There was no longer the problem of the scarcity of food. And we’re just now learning to cope with it. So many people are eating too much that we’ve got the obesity epidemic.
And it’s the exact same problem with stuff. Stuff used to cost a lot and was precious. People used to hand down furniture from generation to generation because it was really expensive and you had it made and that’s how it was. And people did that with clothes. There’s a fantastic historian I found who calculated the cost of the shirt before the industrial revolution, going back to about the late 17th and early 18th century. A shirt would have cost in today’s figures about $3,500. And she calculated based on the amount of time to grow the wool and the time to create the yarn and create the material and to sell it, etc.
You can walk into a store now and get a shirt for $2, $3. The cost has just shot down. So you can just buy stuff — it’s ubiquitous, it’s cheap. And the problem is we’ve been honed to think about things in terms of scarcity and all of the sudden we’re finding out that we don’t know how to cope. We just keep buying and buying and buying.
Do you think that people are becoming more mindful about their purchasing habits?
Yes, I think so. I think people will buy less, buy fewer but better. This is not the end of consumerism. This is not the end of spending money. We’re humans and we all still want to buy shoes and cars and clothes and cellphones; it’s not the end of stuff at all.
But will we be more mindful? I think so. I was talking to a developer who gave a talk at Google the other day about analytics and the quantified self movement. About how once people understand more about their health, their sickness, their life, their happiness, and they start to measure and monitor all of those things, they become more mindful and therefore make better decisions.
If you think in terms of food, there are times when you see a McDonald’s and you just go eat it because you’re a bit hungry, and then you get that feeling afterward, like a heaviness that comes with eating a kind of cardboard burger. And the same goes with coffee. Most people seem to know that if they have, let’s say, one or two coffees in the morning, then they work really well. If they have three they get too shaky. It’s too much coffee — they know that.
And the beauty of any kind of measuring or monitoring, of thinking these things through and wondering whether it makes you happier or not, is you end up changing your behavior. From doing this work I have changed my behavior.
We’re not going to hit something like a retail Armageddon day and everyone’s going to not go to the shops. It just isn’t going to happen that way. The shift that really kicked off in the States in the 1920s was quite a conscious move by the government and businesspeople to create the consumer way of being. It took decades for it to really catch on and, if you look at it, it’s only really catching on in other parts of the world — China, Indonesia, India, Brazil — now. So it takes a long time for this kind of long-term cultural change. But I think that’s what we’re going to see over the next decades. So yes, long-term we will be more mindful. In the short-term I think it’s going to take a bit more time.
What are some of the drivers of this shift?
The reasons for stuffocation are all observable, long-term trends, and I think of them as storm waves crashing again and again against our materialistic culture. Materialism is going to be in a perfect storm in the 21st century, and this is why I think stuffocation is going to be the defining problem of the 21st century.
So as far as drivers, there are many and I think as with anything as seismic as stuffocation, you’re going to have lots of reasons and a different expert will give you a different emphasis. So if you talk to a philosopher, like Alain de Botton, say, he’d say that we’ve had enough of stuff because of the status anxiety that comes with materialism. If you talk to a psychologist like Oliver James, he’ll tell you the reason we’ve had enough of stuff is because all this stuff is giving us affluenza, that mass consumption is leading to mass depression — the figures for that are pretty startling.
If you talk to a political scientist like Ron Inglehart from the University of Michigan, I think he’d tell you that the reason we’ve had enough of stuff isn’t just because we’ve got enough. It’s that we know we’re going to have a roof over our heads now. We know that we’re going to have food on the table tomorrow. So we’ve climbed the first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And we’re just not so bothered about materialistic concerns. If you ask an anthropologist, and I’m thinking of specifically the guys at CELF — the Center on the Everyday Lives of Families, based in Los Angeles. They recently produced the most comprehensive report on contemporary lives ever created. And they concluded that we live in the most materially rich society in global history. That we have “light-years more possessions” than any preceding society. We’re coping with extraordinary clutter and straining under material saturation; we’re in a clutter crisis.
And technologists are really important here as well. I think they’d say, well these things are all relevant, but the real reason is simply because we can. Why have a room full of Encyclopedia Britannicas when you can use Google? Why have a second car or a car at all when you use Zipcar or Uber? Why have a suitcase full of books when you can use a Kindle? So the real reason we’re moving away from material things is simply because we can.
Do you think that the move away from the accumulation of stuff is contributing to the circular economy?
I think the circular economy [the idea of using materials better and designing out waste, creating a sustainable production cycle] is good. It’s a good idea. The problem that I have with that and the problem I have with lots of solutions is I just don’t think it’s very aspirational and fun.
I really hate people that say you should do something. I really hate people that raise their fist in the air saying you shouldn’t consume. You know, the Buy Nothing Day. You shouldn’t eat red meat, you shouldn’t drink this, you shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t drive your car and enjoy driving your car. You shouldn’t enjoy your Gucci handbag if that’s what you want to do.
My manifesto is much more that if you care about happiness, status, identity and meaning for yourself, you should be experiential, not materialistic. It will make you happier. It will give you most stories. It will give you more status. It will bring you close, there’s so many reasons. So the kind of “Be eco, be green!” thing…it’s like, “Oh, fuck off. I wanna do what I wanna do.”
So the way to get people to change is not to hit them on the head. If you think about smoking, for example, one of the reasons that people still think smoking is glamorous is because of Hollywood movies. You see people smoking. It looks cool. I want to look like Cary Grant. I want to look like the Mad Men or whatever, it’s cool. But then the clever nudge is, the clever way to influence behavior isn’t to sit there saying smoking is bad for you. I mean, what did any of the campaigns saying that smoking is bad for you really do? It’s really kind of a different shift that made it happen. Lots of combinations. So my belief is that one of the reasons why experientialism is better than other solutions is that it’s just aspirational and fun.
Before, we really cared about buying things; that’s how we got status and meaning. So what’s next? How do we achieve status and meaning and happiness without buying things?
I want to be clear that this is not an absolute light-switch shift. It’s not that in the 20th century the only way that we got happiness and status and meaning was through buying stuff. You know, we still went on holidays and went to the Rolling Stones or whatever. It’s just that there’s a very important, massive relative shift where the way that we’ll be getting happiness is through doing things — rock climbing, doing yoga, going to the local park for a walk. People often ask me if this is just a new version of consumerism, and to an extent it is. You know, going to see The Masque of the Red Death will give you some serious experiential currency. I think one of the reasons for the rise in Tough Mudder is that bankers can’t get status anymore from having a bigger watch than their friends. You know, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter if you buy one of those crazy expensive watches — you can’t get any more status because you’ve already got one.
This isn’t anti-materialism, it’s post-materialism. You can get status for running a Tough Mudder because not everyone can do it. Anyone can buy that watch.
Are certain generations more interested in this idea?
Yes. If you’ve grown up in the time of scarcity and unstable society, you are much more materialistic than someone who didn’t. And the Millennials have grown up in a time of massive abundance. My father finishes not only everything on his plate, but everything on everybody at the table’s plates, because he grew up in a time where there just wasn’t much food around. But my daughter, born a few years ago, is really fussy and eats what she wants and leaves the rest. If you’ve grown up with scarcity, you’re probably worrying about the roof over your head and food to eat tomorrow. But if you’ve grown in a time of abundance, you’re just not so worried about things like that. Your concerns change. I would wrap that up into the term “experientialist.” You’re looking for interesting experiences in your life.
Do you think this ties into the types of work that people choose, how they shop and their goals and aspirations in life?
Yeah, I do. I really do. Instead of choosing a job based on whether it will provide you with enough material goods to survive, you’re thinking, is this job going to give me enough experiential goods to make me satisfied? Is it going to be something that I can tell my friends about? Can I post a picture of me at South by Southwest? Will I feel like I’m doing something relevant? I think meaning is the new money. And I think we’re seeing it already change how people make decisions. Again, it’s not going to be overnight. People still want money. They’re not going to give up on having some money, because if you want to go skiing in Tahoe it costs money.
But I think it will slowly change. If you think about some of the more modern workplaces, they’re not just cookie-cutter work environments where it’s turn up, get the job done, go home. Businesses that want the best people make an effort and make the work environment far more interesting and, I would say, experientially compelling.
What role has social media played in how we’re redefining social status and rejecting materialism?
Social media is really key because it’s changed the way we express our identity and get our status. In the 20th century we tended to look for status identity through material goods. People would see you at the show, the shoes you were wearing or the bag you were carrying, the car you were driving or the watch that you had on your arm. But who knew you’d been to the Hamptons for the weekend or Marrakech on vacation? But now with all your follows on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Google+, they do and that matters. And we don’t have to be doing things for extrinsic reasons just to show off and go, Hey I’m here! I’m doing this! Sometimes we’re just sharing with friends.
I gave a talk at Google the other day and somebody took a picture of me on a Google bike and I posted that picture to Facebook because I wanted to show friends, and my mom responded with, “I’m very proud” and my friends were like, “Oh, good on you.” And yeah to an extent it’s showing off, but it’s also like, hey, this is what I’m doing in the moment. It’s sharing with people. So we express our identity and get our status through what we do in a way that we never used to. Rather than what we have.
Over the course of the 20th century materialism and consumerism have helped raised the standard of living for people across the world. But as you point out in the book, it’s been at the cost of personal health, happiness and the environment. So how do new economies rise? Do you think it’s possible for them to get their citizens out of poverty without falling into the dark side of capitalism and consumption that more mature economies have experienced?
That’s a great question. Let’s just be really clear — stuffocation is a great problem to have; abundance is a great problem to have. The industrial revolution and consumer revolutions in the emerging economies have happened far quicker because they’ve learned from all the mistakes we’ve made and they’ve learned from all the discoveries that we’ve made as well. In order to do a better, quicker job of it, I think they will also go through the same process as us and hopefully do a better job of it as well.
One example: Richard Easterlin has looked at happiness in China for I think the last 20 years or so. The per capita income has shot up by about four or five times, whereas happiness is around the same level. What’s the point in all that extra money if happiness isn’t going to increase? But because we now know that experiences are better than material goods, they can take those learnings, they can take the learnings that we have from Social Security measures, for example, and they can apply those. So I think they will go through the same process but they will go through it differently and hopefully they’ll end up in a better, more conscious place because they can take our learnings and do it better.
Working for advertising and marketing, this whole idea of people moving away from materialism is kind of a bit of a conundrum. In a world where we’re no longer driven to buy so much stuff, do mass-produced goods have a place? And if not, what will replace these goods?
Well, the message is stuffocation. The message is the solution. It’s not anti-stuff. It’s not anti-capitalism. It’s not anti-consumerism. And there will be a place for sunglasses, shoes, cellphones, bags, whatever. Mass-produced is great, because that’s what’s provided us with the abundance. It’s brought the prices down. Think about what Henry Ford did to the price of the vehicle in terms of turning it from this luxury good for the very, very few to a mass-produced good for the many.
So mass production is great. And personalization and customization are absolutely key if you want to really connect with people. With things that are mass-produced and mass-customized, the experience of the good is so much better. If you think about what Burberry have achieved in terms of the trench coat, where you can have it in so many different ways. Ferrari has done something similar. They produce fewer cars per year but they are personalized, and they’re making more money as a result. Think about 3D printing. 3D printing is going to revolutionize the customization and the goods that we have.
Do you think this is tied to the desire for artisanal, small-batch goods?
Yes I do. Like we were talking about earlier with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’ve got the food, we’ve got the shelter, we’ve got the basic goods. Now we want the next thing. The next thing is the story that comes with it. These can come in so many different ways. But they make something more interesting. So that’s much more about psychological need versus surviving need.
How are businesses responding to this slow move away from stuff and toward experiences? How could a company that’s selling stuff adapt to this new ecosystem?
The smart ones are already making the shift. Instead of focusing on how much stuff they can sell, they’re trying to appeal to an experientialist mindset. To an extent, of course, product companies have always attached an experience to the good that you buy. You know, you don’t buy a tennis racket except to play tennis. It’s the same with a car or a washing machine — these things give us experiences, even if that experience is not having to wash your own clothes.
So products obviously come with experiences anyway. I mean, you can take ideas from what Apple does. You can think about how nice it is to use an Apple product — they really have a brutal focus on the experience of the products themselves. But also the box-opening experience; everything about it is considered in terms of experiences. So I think the key thing is to think about the consumer — how is the consumer finding happiness, status, identity and meaning? If you can help them get those things, you’re more likely to connect with that consumer and sell to them. If people are finding those things in experiences rather than material then the key thing is to think, how can you give more experience and less material? For example, have you heard of Clever Little Shopper? The cornstarch bag that you can put in hot water and it will disappear?
It’s a bag?
Yeah, it’s called the Clever Little Shopper from Puma, and it solves the problem of having all those little bags that you accumulate when you’re shopping. You can put this red plastic bag in the sink, put it in some hot water, stir it around and three minutes later it’s dissolved in the sink. It’s a great way of de-materializing the product. Think about collaborative consumption, think about how much people enjoy the experience of Airbnb. It’s not about having stuff, it’s having access to stuff. Think about the community that comes with that. I think that if you have the legacy of creating a product rather than solving a problem for people, it’s not about throwing away everything that comes with your business, but it’s about shifting the focus from selling stuff to selling experience.