Our latest Trajectory Trends Breakfast looked at how factors like urbanisation and the increasingly digital delivery of goods and services has changed the way we think about ‘stuff’ and possessions.

Our exploration of the relationship between consumers and stuff was prompted by IKEA CEO Steve Howard’s quote about having reached ‘peak stuff’, which we discussed in an earlier blog post.

“If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff…peak home furnishings.”

Steve Howard, CEO of IKEA

Over the last decade, with the advent of cloud storage, iTunes and the sharing economy, the dematerialisation of physical possessions has been in the public eye almost constantly. Predictions about the future of the publishing industry and whether digital subscriptions were going to kill the written press are made on an almost daily basis. While we once may have thought that the future will involve us all reading eBooks instead of bits of a dead tree and that permanent mp3 downloads were here to stay as the permanent replacement for CDs and cassettes, the truth is that the digital-material dichotomy is becoming increasingly complex.

The example of the music industry is quite an illustrative one.There are new hybrid models of consumption in this sector – while 2015 was the first year digital purchases surpassed physical purchases in terms of global music revenue, we are also seeing the decline of the permanent download as consumers opting to use services like  to widen the pool of files available to them with non-stop access to millions of artists and genres. At the same time, 2016 was also the year that over 3.2 million vinyl records (perhaps the most physical of music formats) were sold in the UK alone, matching a record not seen since 1991. With music lovers opting for more access and complementing it with specialist goods such as limited edition or re-issued vinyls of their favourite artists, we are seeing a new kind of conspicuous consumption emerge – one marked by new ways of defining ourselves as experts and connoisseurs with a healthy amount of cultural capital.

Similarly, another factor influencing our relationship with stuff has been the sharing economy, where consumers are often content to give up ownership in order to be able to access a wider choice of goods and services – just think of AirBnb or JustPark, a parking app that connects drivers with spare parking spaces nearby.

If the rise of sharing-based businesses has proven anything, it’s that business models cannot be taken for granted.

Today’s disruptive businesses can easily be disrupted again tomorrow, with the most current example being the development of driverless cars and how these may affect ride-sharing services.

Are we still consuming stuff? We very much are, but we are doing it in an increasingly polarised and hybridised way. While it is very much the case that it is increasingly our online personas that are infused with our identities rather than the objects we purchase (indeed a European attitudinal survey showed that most of us would feel either sad or panicked at the thought of losing access to our data), manufacturers and retailers are also changing the way they think about their products. With the latter increasingly retaining ownership of goods and selling their use rather than ‘one way’ consumption, we can’t help but wonder whether we are moving towards a future where a continuous stream of services allows us to purchase experiences by the minute or by the second. More importantly, a question that hits closer to home is will the shock to the economy be considerable once consumers start seriously thinking about sharing rather than buying or owning? At Trajectory we tend to take an optimistic view of the future and there are plenty of positive implications (such as increasingly durable products and more efficient refurbishment) – but the alternative needs consideration too.