We need to stop buying stuff – and I know just the people to persuade us
Our ridiculous addiction to acquiring more possessions is stuffing up the planet, so it’s time to call in the experts
Ages ago, an old friend who was an early adopter of environmental concerns wanted a new kitchen. He asked an expert he knew from his work in woodland conservation what wood his new kitchen should be built with. He was startled to get a sharp response: “If you really care, then don’t come to me asking which wood to use; ask yourself if you really need a new kitchen.” Point taken, but not much acted upon, by him, me or anyone else I’ve come across.
I’m so sick of stuff. Some of it is stuff I really need or that is at least genuinely nice to have, but a good 70% is useless stuff. Clothes I’ll never wear, books I’ll never read, kitchen utensils I’ll never utilise. Items big and small that presumably felt essential the day I bought them but turned out to be quite the opposite. I suppose that as I get older the 70% figure will grow and grow until the morning of the day I shuffle off this mortal coil. At this point the percentage of stuff I own that is useless to me will stand at a nice round 100, because, of course, I won’t be able to take it with me. But what I will be able to do is leave it to my children to bump up the percentage of stuff useless to them that they own. And so it goes on.
Stuff, stuff, stuff. Advertising people, pushing at the open door of our acquisitive instincts, dedicate their lives to fooling us into acquiring more of it. It bugs me how these people regard themselves as “creatives”, as if they write plays or novels or grace lighted stages and silver screens. They think they make art. Oh, it’s art all right, the very darkest of arts. How else to characterise what they create: art that so brilliantly lures fools like me into buying stuff we don’t need, or even really want, with money we often haven’t got?
Even the pandemic couldn’t stand in the way of our lust for stuff, and the supply of plenty of it. There was stuff we couldn’t get, but this only served to intensify our desire for it. Hence, we now have so much stuff stuffed into shipping containers all over the world that the entire system is congested, stuffed up with stuff.
The shops closing mattered not a jot; the stuff was delivered to our doors. We hailed as heroes those who sent and delivered even the most non-essential items. There were occasions when, if rules on social distancing allowed it, I would have bear-hugged the poor Amazon delivery man. Yes, the stuff kept coming, and soon our anxiety shifted to what on earth we’d do with the stuff we physically didn’t have room for any more. The charity shops were shut! And the dumps, too! Oh, the anxiety. We had to make space for the new stuff but couldn’t dump the old stuff to make room for the new. It was awful – awful, I tell you. Look around you next time you make a road trip. There are storage companies springing up everywhere. We’re so stuffed with stuff that we’re actually paying people to store our stuff for us.
This madness must stop, but I don’t see our lunatic addiction to stuff addressed in the plans to get to net zero. What we need is a brilliantly executed ad campaign around the slogan STOP BUYING STUFF. The trouble is, the geniuses in the ad industry who we’d need to create this campaign will always remain dedicated to getting us to do the exact opposite. Whatever the money on offer, there would be no pitches for this ad campaign – an ad campaign aimed at, literally, ending all ad campaigns.
Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist