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Storage Nation

by Rob Dietz

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
Everywhere you go.
Take a look in the storage hut,
Where doors roll open and shut,
And piles of pap and useless crap do grow.

It’s hard to know where to begin a rant about the materialistic mess that our culture has made of Christmastime in the United States. An easy target is the Thanksgiving midnight-madness sales at big-box retail stores. And there’s always those devious marketers who use nostalgia to turn December into a month of mass consumption. But there’s one industry that, more than any other, epitomizes materialism and our seemingly limitless propensity to consume: self storage.

Self-storage businesses are warehouses where people rent garages to hold their excess stuff. In the not-too-distant past, a small number of self-storage businesses catered to homes in transition (for example, when people were moving from one place to another). On the pop culture scene, if self storage made any appearance at all, it was in a macabre role. For instance, in the film The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling searches a storage unit and finds a pickled head in a jar.

Oh how things have changed! Over the past few decades self-storage facilities have popped up faster than Starbucks outlets. The U.S. has over 2.2 billion square feet (78 square miles) of rentable space, more than 3 times the size of Manhattan Island.[1] One out of every 10 American households now leases a unit.[2]

What’s going on here? Two separate currents have come together to form a riptide that drags people under the sea of self storage. The first current is the credit-card-fueled shopping frenzy that has put many Americans in a position of owning too many possessions. The second current is the promotion of self storage as an investment opportunity for entrepreneurs. The first current is pretty well documented,[3] so let’s float along with the second current for a bit.

The place to get started is a bookstore or your local library. There you might be able to find How to Invest in Self-Storage by Scott Duffy and R. K. Kliebenstein (2005), Self-Storage Investments by Richard Stephens (2008), or Rent It Up! Four Steps to Unlocking the Profit Potential in Your Self-Storage Business by Tron Jordheim (2009). Of if you prefer fiction to how-to books, there’s even a novel titled Self Storage (2008) by Gayle Brandeis.

Here’s a quote from the opening of Rent It Up!:

But if you are trying to create as much profit as you can and build a sustainable business, as well as a real estate asset that will increase in value far faster than your competitors’, then you are in the right place and should keep on reading.”

Maybe a row of self-storage units could hold all the books about self storage.

It’s not that easy to define the word “sustainable,” but one wonders what meaning the author ascribes to this term when he refers to building a sustainable self-storage business.

One thing’s certain about sustainability: it doesn’t result from continuous exponential growth. The Self Storage Association (SSA), the trade organization and lobbying arm of the industry, reports that self storage is a $20 billion industry. It has been the “fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the last 30 years and has been considered by Wall Street analysts to be recession resistant based on its performance since the economic recession of September, 2008.”[4] What has made the industry recession-proof? One answer is that foreclosures encourage the newly homeless to move their stuff into temporary storage. In the age of uneconomic growth, when overall growth is making the U.S. poorer rather than richer, the self-storage industry appears to be an uneconomic leader.

Not everyone has the means to start a self-storage business, but would-be entrepreneurs have another way to get in the game. A cottage industry has developed around auctions from failures in self storage. When a tenant fails to make payments on a self-storage rental, the storage company can auction off the contents of the unit. Another trip to the bookstore or library can catch you up on this trend. These books explain how to exploit such a circumstance: How to Make Boxes of Cash with Self-Storage Auctions by Barbara Rogers (2007), Making Money with Storage Auctions by Edwards Busoni (2008), Mini Storage Auctions: Uncover the Cash Within by L. S. James (2010), and Making Money A-Z with Self Storage Unit Auctions by Glendon Cameron (2011).

It’s a surprise that no one has written How to Make Money Writing and Selling Books about Self-Storage Auctions!

Moving from the unreal to the surreal… self storage has rebounded from its lowly pop-culture status in The Silence of the Lambs. The cable channel A&E broadcasts a program called Storage Wars about people competing for profits in self-storage auctions. A&E’s website says that Storage Wars, “which follows teams of bidders looking to score it big in the high stakes world of storage auctions, ranks as A&E’s number one series of all time among adults 25-54. During its first season, the series averaged 2.8 million viewers per episode and peaked at 3.8 million.”[5]

In the spirit of regaining a positive attitude during this holiday season, I’d like to propose a New Year’s resolution for the nation. Let’s ditch our storage units. It should be a snap for the third-most-popular type of self-storage customers: people storing items they no longer need or want.[6] And for other customers, downsizing can be downright liberating. This Christmas season, the best gift of all is the gift of less cluttered lives.

[1] Self Storage Association Fact Sheet.

[2] Jon Mooallem, “The Self-Storage Self,” New York Times Magazine, September 2, 2009.

[3] For more details see sources such as the Center for a New American Dream and the Story of Stuff Project.

[4] See note 1.

[5] A&E.

[6] See note 2.

From Black Friday to a Better Way

Rethinking Consumer Spending and Enjoying the Holidays

by Brent Blackwelder

The day following Thanksgiving Day in the United States is called Black Friday. For retailers the day marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. While the origin of the term is debated, it is today associated with special sales and extraordinary promotions that retailers use to induce shoppers into spending the holiday weekend on a shopping spree.

Our modern economy is structured such that its stability depends upon ever increasing consumer spending. In my first economics course in college in 1961, the professor told the class to go out and shop because it is good for the gross national product (GNP). Then and now, mainstream economics continues to treat the Earth as if it were a business in a liquidation sale.

At a time of high unemployment in the United States, it may seem like an act of madness to question the growth economy, but relentless pursuit of growth has failed to deliver again and again on the promise of economic stability and security. Its recipes are not making people any happier, and it is undermining the ecological life support systems of our planet. It has failed about one third of the world’s population who live on less than $2 per day, while simultaneously producing an exclusive club of gratuitously wealthy individuals. Those of us advocating a steady state economy seek a new way to maintain full employment that does not incentivize employers to seek dirt-cheap labor or to replace people with machines.

Professor Tim Jackson’s 2009 report to the UK Sustainable Development Commission entitled Prosperity without Growth provides an outstanding foundation for any discussion of consumerism and the growth economy. For those interested in a steady state economy, it is worthwhile to think in this holiday season about the nature of shopping in such an economy.

Throughout history religious leaders have expressed concerns about the accumulation of stuff. Two thousand years ago Jesus cautioned about excessive attention to material possessions, saying: “Lay not up for yourself treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal.”

Over 100 years ago the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill recognized that eventually humanity would have to move toward a stationary state of capital and wealth, but that condition need not entail a stagnation of human improvement.

Two centuries ago the poet William Wordsworth expressed alarm at the consumerism he witnessed in England: “The world is too much with us, late and soon. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours. We have given our hearts away…”

Today’s economy is five times bigger than in the 1950s, and at current growth rates stimulated by commercial promotions, it is headed to a global economy 80 times as large.

The consumer rampage is in part fueled by slick advertising for novel consumer products, and much of this advertising is targeted at youth. Ralph Nader questions who is watching what young people worldwide are being enticed to buy? He writes: “Undermining parental authority with penetrating marketing schemes and temptations, companies deceptively excite youngsters to buy massive amounts of products that are bad for their safety, health and minds.”

Excessive packaging accompanying today’s products attracts ecological criticism, but it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of waste. The volume of raw resource extraction required in the manufacture of products dwarfs the packaging waste. For example, many mining operations for valuable metals leave behind as waste over 90% of the material excavated, and such rocky rubble often releases a mass of toxicity onto the land and into the water.

Has happiness been improved by having all these products? Studies over the past two decades have suggested that a certain amount of material comfort and ease provided by various products increases one’s happiness, but beyond a certain point – one study suggested $75,000 income – more stuff doesn’t produce more happiness. In fact, it can yield the perverse result of adding stress, worry and depression.

It is amazing that times of holiday celebration in the United States are frequently the very times of peak stress. What should be a fun and cheerful experience becomes a week or even a month of worry.

The holiday season is a good time to reexamine the kinds of purchases we make to see whether they are reducing the use of natural resources and encouraging more sustainable ways of growing food and conducting commercial business.

Many religious congregations are looking toward a different approach to reclaim the holidays from preoccupation with material gifts. Some offer ways to reduce the volume of purchasing and to make different kinds of purchases that reduce throughput and pollution.

For example, Interfaith Power and Light seeks to get religious congregations to purchase renewable energy and to reduce energy use in their homes and their places of worship. Through Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, our family now purchases all our electricity, sourced from wind farms, at a surcharge of about $130 a year.

By voting with their food dollars many Americans have already sent powerful signals in favor of local farm markets and organic food. With some due diligence, people can determine whether their purchases lend further support to child labor and slave conditions, whether the purchases harm women or empower women, and whether the product came from an animal-slum factory farm operation. The Fair Trade label allows consumers to identify imported products that avoid harmful labor and environmental degradation in their manufacture.

We have options.  We can do better than liquidating our natural bounty for consumer novelty, we can refrain from pitching unnecessary products to our children, and we can stop pursuing growth for growth’s sake.  The steady state economy is a better choice than continuous pursuit of economic growth, but the transition starts with better choices about what and how we consume.