What is an economy? Is it things, stuff like cars, houses, washing machines and computers? Or is it services? The function of those things, payment services, cleaning services, heating, communication etc. We might say it is both. All the products around us deliver some functionality, but in order for them to do that they have to be made of some stuff. But somethings are made of more stuff than others. Take a mainframe computer of forty years ago and compare it to your phone which can deliver much more computational functionality with a lot less stuff to do it with.
Things start out clunky and lumpy and over time we rationalize their design and production, for them to deliver more services with less resources, and this is the essence of what we call dematerialization. The UNEP defines dematerialization as such ”the reduction of total materials and energy throughput of any product and service, and thus the limitation of its environmental impact. This includes reduction of raw materials at the production stage, of energy and materials inputs at the use stage, and of waste at the disposal stage.”
In economics, dematerialization refers to the absolute or relative reduction in the quantity of materials required to serve economic functions in society. In common terms, dematerialization means doing more with less which is similar to the concept of ephemeralization as proposed by Buckminster Fuller.