Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Burl Humana

Our current economic system that provides for our material needs works only by producing and selling things. The more we produce and the more we purchase the more we have so called progress and prosperity. However, the production, processing, and consumption, of commodities requires the extraction and use of natural resources (wood, ore, fossil fuels, water); it requires the creation of factories and factory complexes whose operation creates toxic byproducts, while the use of commodities themselves (e.g. automobiles) creates pollutants and waste. (Allyn and Bacon, 1999) The number of consumers and their individual and collective behaviors drive materialization. (Daedalus – 1996)


Human societies now face unintended and ironic consequences of their own mechanical, chemical, medical, social, and financial ingenuity. (Iona Zira - 2003) The production and consumption of products is destructive, in the long run, to the environment and is a contributing factor to poverty and hunger around the world. A long list of social and ecological problems can not be solved without a less consumptive society and the dematerialization of our natural resources.


Dematerialization is a technological term that defines the reduction of material used per unit quality of life. You may have noticed the plastic sack at the grocery store getting thinner, but it is still strong enough to carry your groceries. Over the years, it may seem that you can squeeze the pop can you drink from more easily with your hand though you may not have gotten any stronger. These types of changes in products are the result of dematerialization, using fewer natural resources in products, using more recycled resources, and extending the life of products.

Industrial ecology is the study of the totality of the relationships between different industrial activities, their products, and the environment. It is intended to identify ways to optimize the network of all industrial processes as they interact and live off each other, in the sense of a direct use of each other's material and energy wastes and products as well as economic synergism. The macroscopic picture of materialization can help raise key research questions and set priorities among the numerous studies of materials flows and networks that might be undertaken. It puts these in a dynamic context of both technical and market change. (Daedalus – 1996)

Dematerialization of unit products affects, and is influenced by, a number of factors besides product quality. These include ease of manufacturing, production cost, size and complexity of the product, whether the product is to be repaired or replaced, and the amount of waste to be generated and processed. These factors influence one another. For example, the ease of manufacture of a particular product in smaller and lighter units may result in lower production cost and cheaper products of lower quality, which will be replaced rather than repaired on breaking down. Although a smaller amount of waste will be generated on a per-unit basis, more units will be produced and disposed of, and there may be an overall increase in waste generation at both the production and the consumption ends. (Dr. Braden Allenby- 1992) Through industrial ecololgy we can determine best outcomes using a wider, more global outlook of the affects of our activities on the environment.

In a functional economy consumers can purchase function, rather than a physical product, from a service provider. "For example, we don't want the washing machine, we want clean, dry washing; we don't want the drill, we want to have a picture hanged." (Rolf Jucker - 2000) Through dematerialization a physical product is replaced by a non-physical product or service reducing a company's production, demand and use of physical products; and the end-user's dependence on physical products. This strategy realizes cost-savings in materials, energy, transportation, consumables, and the need to manage the eventual disposal and/or recycling of a physical product. Dematerialization may involve making a product smaller and lighter, replacing a material product with an immaterial substitute. One common example of this that we currently practice is the replacement of postal mail with E-mail. Reducing the use of material or infrastructure-intensive systems allows us to make changes like telecommuting versus the use of the automobile for work purposes.

The ease and speed of travel is a large contributing factor to the materialization of our world. As a society we have spread out and continue to create a built environment all over the map because it is so quick and easy to get from here to there. As we create wider, better roads, more cars fill the roadways. The use of plastics in society is the by product of using too much oil to fuel our automobiles. As a result the disposal of plastic waste is an increasing problem. Not to mention the effect on the environment due to the incredible amount of industrialized metals, plastics, electronic materials, rubber, and glass it takes to manufacture each car. A recent television ad with a woman talking about the need to protect the environment ended with this endearment, “but, I love my car!” Attempts to dematerialize the automobile by using high strength steel and plastics to decrease mass but increase structural integrity are negatively offset by this kind of sentiment by consumers.

A starting point for a sensible theory or practice of consumption has to be the insight that every time you buy and/or consume something--be it a tiny battery to keep your watch going or be it a TV, a car or a hamburger, you are making an impact on the social, economic, and ecological environment. In the words of Anwar Fazal, former president of the International Organization of Consumer Unions (IOCU): "The act of buying is a vote for an economic and social model, for a particular way of producing goods. We are concerned with the quality of goods and the satisfactions we derive from them. But we cannot ignore the environmental impact, and working conditions under which products are made." Our relationship with these products or goods does not end with our enjoyment of possessing or consuming them. We are linked to them and perpetuate them and therefore share some direct responsibility for them." (Rolf Jucker - 2000)

Life-styles also shape demand. Today, only a small fraction of consumption in wealthy nations (or communities) is actually for basic survival; most is for pleasure and to express one's standing in society. (Daedalus - 1996) In a standup monologue, comedian George Carlin used humor to increase our awareness of society's obsessive behavior for material objects, “That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a ….place for your stuff, ya know? A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it…I can see it on your table, everybody's got a for their stuff. ….This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there...And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff…That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore…" Sometimes the beginning to an answer for a serious problem like too much materialism and consumerism is to create personal awareness.

Of the three factors environmentalists often point to as responsible for environmental problems — population, technology, and consumption — consumption seems to get the least attention. One reason ... is that it may be the most difficult to change; our consumption patterns are so much a part of our lives that to change them would require a massive cultural overhaul, not to mention severe economic dislocation. A drop in demand for products, as economists note, brings on economic recession or even depression, along with massive unemployment. This is so ingrained into the cultures of the wealthy nations, that the thought of massive adjustment of lifestyles and economic systems to a more sustainable consumption seems too much to consider. (Annup Shaw - 2005) Taking a moderate approach with gradual or incremental changes in lifestyle could increase the probability of an actual decrease in consumption.

Substantial progress has been made over the past century in decoupling economic growth and well-being from increasing primary energy use through increased efficiency. With this success some economists may come to think that dematerialization is a term for scientific processes and economic strategies alone and has nothing to do with materialism as a philosophy. On the other hand there is increased realization that “decoupling materials and affluence will be difficult—much harder than decoupling carbon and prosperity." (Daedalus - 1996) The term dematerialization applies to the individual act of buying less, consuming less and finding more meaning in our lives than the acquisition of material goods. Downsizing our homes, our automobiles, our technological toys and entertainment systems, our cloths closets, and the consumptive habits we teach our children can help people simplify their lives and find other interests that create more meaning, value, and happiness. Understanding the historical roots of materialism that have resulted in our modern affluence could also be key to decreasing our personal use and obsession with material goods in the built world.


Consumption has become a function of our culture that needs to be intentionally curbed. The growing role of knowledge, information, and culture should also make it possible to displace materials and energy with human intelligence and ingenuity. This would allow us to satisfy more basic human needs with far fewer resources. It would ostensibly also allow us to fit human economic activities within natural processes without disrupting them. Dematerialization is the future of an ecologically and economically balanced world. (Allyn and Bacon, 1999)

Pattern status: