Hampstead author examines our love of ‘stuff’ in latest book The Empire of Things

A German electricity fair in 1953

A German electricity fair in 1953 - Credit: Archant

An average British adult today spends over eight hours a week shopping, a quarter of which involves browsing clothes and shoes.

Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann

Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann - Credit: Archant

The average UK household owns around 225 items of clothing, a quarter of which never leave the wardrobe.

Such is the overwhelming sum of our possessions, consumers are readily characterised as greedy, frivolous and superficial – the model of consumerist materialism – but, at the same time, it is often claimed that the consumer is king.

As Frank Trentmann demonstrates, however, this inconsistency is hardly surprising.

“People very quickly get bogged down in arguing that consumption is either wonderful or evil, but the reality is more nuanced,” he says. “Not all consumption is the same – and there are some forms which have much more damaging impacts than others.”

In Empire of Things, (Allen Lane £30) the Birkbeck College historian traces the provenance of our modern material world, citing Renaissance Italy, late Ming China and the age of British imperialism as examples of its long-standing and diverse history.

Both in writing and in person, Professor Trentmann, who directed a five-year, £5million research programme into cultures of consumption, exhibits a knowledge so profound and a manner so exquisite that you could listen to him all day.

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He provides a broad perspective on the global challenges of consumerism, from waste and consumer debt to stress and inequality, making clear that the problem is not simply the scale but the changing nature of our relentless pursuit of more stuff.

The first half of Trentmann’s study explores six centuries of growth in consumption – how things became, as north London teenagers might say, a thing. Examining the influence of trade on tastes, the Hampstead resident illustrates that tea, coffee and cocoa are a seminal form of consumption and remain a defining feature of our lives.

“The production of those drinks caused a massive shift of people and plants on a global scale. And you only have to look at Hampstead High Street to see how tea and coffee are still influential types of consumption in our society,” he laughs.

The second half, meanwhile, considers contemporary debates about consumption within their historical context. As far as the positive power of purchasing is concerned, the arguments read like a John Lewis catalogue: never knowingly undersold.

Trentmann believes that consumption is the bedrock of democracy, capitalism and contemporary culture. “The big dilemma is that, from a purely social, economic and cultural point of view, it has, not exclusively, but many positive attributes.

“Most people would feel that they would lose some of their identity if they couldn’t have certain possessions, pursue certain hobbies, and have some choice over how they dress, what music they listen to and where they go on holiday.”

Yet, he warns that we have alighted upon a “hyperactive” kind of consumption which is just not sustainable. “The leisure lives that middle-class, educated people lead of never sitting still is a fleeting and damaging experience of pleasure.”

The undertones of waste in the term “consumption” seem particularly pertinent as Trentmann condemns the futile ways in which materialism is threatening the planet, blaming negligent city management for the growth in unsustainable habits.

“Lifestyles are a result of many different things coming together and individuals don’t necessarily have control over them,” he says. “We need to develop better habits. If you think of transport, we could emulate how Dutch cities have redesigned their mobility patterns to promote bicycles. Now, people have a habit of cycling for short trips.”

Trentmann combines his realism about the preoccupying perils of consumption with optimism about the capacity for improvement. “If I wasn’t moderately optimistic, I wouldn’t have spent years researching and writing this book,” he says. “History is full of interesting examples of change and how what looked normal suddenly becomes abnormal.”

Whatever our view of consumption in 2016, Trentmann concludes that society will live and die by what and how people consume in 2050.