If we’ve switched to subscriptions, why do we still have so much stuff?

We’re in the midst of a sharing economy frenzy. From Air BNB to ZipCar to Satander Cycles to BorrowMyDoggy, we seem very keen to use everyone else’s stuff, or at least cut down on the amount we actually own. For many of us, Netflix and Spotify have basically rendered our physical movie and music collections obsolete (and in the process made present buying for certain members of the family very tricky indeed) and indeed Deloitte highlighted the subscription economy as one of its six key trends for 2016 in its forecast earlier this year.

As if that wasn’t enough of a change from the way our parents consumed stuff, there’s a growing trend for people to seek out experiences over possessions. Bea Johnson, the woman behind Zero Waste Home, and whose family’s annual rubbish could fit into a pint glass, has long championed chasing memories not things. Although hers may be the extreme end of the trend, there’s no doubt that we are embracing this idea more and more: spending in restaurants, for example rose by 5.3% in 2015 according to a report by Visa. By contrast, we spent less on clothing and other material possessions in the same time frame.

That’s not to say we’re parting with less cash. We aren’t. At all. Consumer spending per capita continues to rise year on year pretty steadily.

The cumulative effect of these things should really be that we’re living more minimalist lives, shouldn’t it? Not so, apparently. Whilst you’d have thought that freeing up space previously occupied by box sets and CDs, borrowing a bike over buying one or opting to spend hard-earned cash on holidays and outings would leave us all with delightfully minimalist homes, we seem to have more stuff than ever.

Our houses are getting smaller too: although new build regulations are tighter in the capital — meaning that a new build 3 bed home here is likely more spacious than its equivalent in somewhere like Yorkshire — strains of population and demand for housing mean we’re often left with smaller and more expensive housing options than elsewhere.

It’s not surprising then that in the UK the amount of self-storage grew by 1.9 million square feet in 2015, and the year before had grown by 1.3 million. That’s an awful lot of boxes. It’s not just confined to our borders: there are now more self-storage facilities in the Statesthan there are McDonalds restaurants — a sobering thought indeed for anyone given to complaining how ubiquitous those golden arches have become.

A couple of decades ago, a certain flat-pack loving Scandinavian company implored us to ‘chuck out our chintz’, and we did. Perhaps now we’ve come out the other side of the catalogue ready aesthetic for our homes and we’re now yearning for something more personal — something also echoed by the retail trend forecasting mentioned above.

“Nowadays there’s big movement towards individualism and representing yourself and your story at home” says Mark Hill, an antiques expert in a recent interview with SideStory, a travel company that prizes ‘experiences over things’. His contention, that we’ve become collectors of a different kind, is an interesting one. We’re fast finding our way away from the three-piece-suite mentality of matching everything to everything or ‘getting the set’ and as finding out which things best reflect and fit us is invariably as much a learning process as a lengthy one, buying and keeping things to curate later at leisure seems a no-brainer.

Although the idea of self-storage perhaps goes against the Zero Waste mentality, there is an odd correlation: ‘have nothing in your home that you do not believe to be beautiful or know to be useful’ fits as well in a home with one hundred possessions as it could in one with a hundred thousand. What matters most is keeping things because you love them, and it’s about time we all accepted that this doesn’t have to come with a fixed number, isn’t it?

First published on the Boxman blog, August 2016