Does waste have a future?

Dominic Hogg and Mark Hilton consider what a world without conspicuous consumption would look like, and how the coming circular economy will affect today’s waste industry. 

This article was taken from Issue 84

When institutional economist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the late nineteenth century, it referred particularly to the glittering socialites born of the Industrial Revolution, whom Veblen saw as wanting and wasting in equal measure.

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, he wrote: ‘The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of retaining a good name, are
leisure and the conspicuous consumption of goods. Accordingly, both of these methods are in vogue as far down the scale as it remains possible; ... the utility of [leisure and conspicuous consumption] alike for the purposes of reputability lies in the element of waste that is common to both.’

Dismayed as he was by this state of affairs, how much greater Veblen’s rancour might have been
had he glimpsed twenty-first century life. Increased purchasing power and an array of cheap goods allow conspicuous consumption much further ‘down the scale’ than he might have envisaged. On its back, the ‘waste industry’ has thrived.