What I wanted to determine is whether tracking the money we spent gives an indication of the amount of stuff we have consumed. In a rough and ready kind of way, I feel it does. Second hand and re-used items are free or cost less, so increasing the re-use of items rather than buying new would show a drop in money spent, which is good. What is missed by just tracking money, is whether a product is local or fair-trade. Local products are likely to be more environmentally friendly especially if they are made with local resources, and in the UK this also means that they are fair-trade. We have a minimum wage and a welfare system which provides healthcare and education for all, so it is far less likely that people have been exploited to make these products.
As fair-trade and some local products can be more expensive than cheaply produced imports, for tracking purposes it could look as if you are buying more stuff, rather than trying to be more ethical. But as the aim is to track stuff and reduce resource use, fair-trade and local products are still consuming materials, so their contribution should count. Also I haven’t bought any fair-trade goods in April, so their effect on my spend over the year is likely to be fairly small. The local products I have bought such as the pak choi plants, were from the local market and far cheaper than purchasing from a store, so there is not always a premium for local goods.
The other issue is whether the purchase is necessary and useful. I can see several areas where I could avoid some of my purchases and will discuss these further. However as far as tracking is concerned, unnecessary stuff will end up as waste, so maybe monitoring waste would give a fairer picture of this. (Don’t worry I am not going to keep a photo journal of my rubbish J)
So given that using money spent is a fair enough method of tracking stuff, what does the UK’s spend on stuff look like?
The Household final consumption expenditure in the UK for 2012 was £973,393 million (around $1,512 billion) (Office for National Statistics, Statistical bulletin: Consumer Trends Q4 2012). With a population of 63 million in the UK, that makes £15,406 per person ($23,945). This seemed rather high, and looking at the detail includes food, energy, vehicles and housing costs. Splitting it down to just ‘Household goods and services’, ‘Recreation and culture’, and ‘Clothing and footwear’, which more or less covers all the items I have included in my list, it comes to an average of £3,283.94 ($5,104.56) per person per year.
Sharon Astyk had a target of reducing consumption by 90% of the average for the US, so for comparison I have looked for figures from the US, and found the total Personal Consumption Expenditure is £7,237 billion ($11,249 billion) (US department of commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts Tables, Table2.3.5. Personal Consumption Expenditures by Major Type of Product). Using a population of 307million (The United States Census Bureau, The 2012 Statistical Abstract, Population) that gives £23,575 ($36,643 per person). Breaking it down, the categories don’t quite match with the UK, but the best fit is using ‘Furnishings’, ‘Recreational goods and vehicles’, ‘other durable goods’(jewellery, luggage, phones), ‘Clothing and footwear’ and ‘Recreation services’. It comes to an average of £3,370 ($5239) per person.
I was surprised that this was so similar to the UK figure, but then we have VAT to pay on all our purchases, which is currently 20%. A quick look on a comparison site shows that consumer goods are on average 25% more expensive in the UK. This has really mucked up my figures! The point is though, that even if we do consume 25% less stuff in the UK than people in the US, we would still need to reduce our consumption by 86% to reach the same target. So while we may feel that we are less extravagant, there is really no room for complacency because we are still significant consumers.
Based on a monthly spend of £442 ($684) for 5 people, our annual average individual spend would be £1,060 ($1648), that is far below the average, but it is not very accurate. I mean just imagine the fridge broke down in April, it could have doubled my spend for the month. I really need to collect a full years worth of data to have a better idea and see if we can make reductions. Hopefully the UK average figures above will give other people something to compare their spend against in any case.