Collaborative Consumption: Shifting the Consumer Mindset

What if more consumers opted for access over ownership, use over possession, experience over “stuff”? Material wants and needs wouldn’t be in conflict with the responsibilities of a connected, environmentally conscious citizen.

| November 19, 2010

  • What's Mine Is Yours
    Collaborative consumption is organized sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting and swapping through online and real-world communities. “What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption” explores this invigorating shift from an unfettered zeal for individual getting and spending toward a rediscovery of collective good.
  • Collaborative Consumption
    When someone enters Collaborative Consumption through one particular door — a clothing exchange, a car-sharing scheme or a launderette — they become more receptive to other kinds of collective or community-based solutions. Over time, these experiences create a deep shift in consumer mindset.

  • What's Mine Is Yours
  • Collaborative Consumption

The following is an excerpt from What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010). Drawing from examples of real entrepreneurs and revolutionaries around the world, Botsman and Rogers show how social technologies and economic and environmental imperatives are moving us into a new realm of consumerism, one marked by sustainability and shared access. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Enough Is Enough,” and Chapter 10, “The Evolution of Collaborative Consumption.” 

There is something sad about all this stuff we work so hard to buy, can’t live with, but inevitably can’t bear to part with. In the same way that we focus on where to bury our waste, not where the waste came from, we also spend inordinate amounts of energy and money storing excess stuff rather than asking the hard truths of why we have so much in the first place. The comedian George Carlin riffed on this in his classic stand-up routine about stuff: “The whole meaning of life has become trying to find a place to put your stuff ... Have you ever noticed how other people’s shit is shit and your stuff is stuff?” The controversial David Fincher movie Fight Club struck a painful chord with viewers who have ever experienced that addictive feeling of always wanting more, regardless of how much they have. Most people remember two lines from the movies: “The first rule of Fight Club — you do not talk about Fight Club” and “The things you own end up owning you.”

Tyler and Jack, the two main characters in the movie, seem to represent the stark choice that modern consumerism offers, best summarized by esteemed German social psychologist Erich Fromm as “To Have or to Be.” Jack (Ed Norton), is a stereotypical 30-year-old insomniac yuppie who keeps trying to fill his emotional voids and feel “complete” with the things he acquires. “I flip through catalogues and wonder what kind of dining set defines me as a person.” But no matter what Jack buys, he’s never satisfied. That’s before he meets Tyler (Brad Pitt), who, throughout the movie, takes anticonsumerist jabs such as, “You are not the clothes you wear. You are not the contents of your wallet ... You are not your grande latte. You are not the car you drive. You are not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” Tyler shows Jack that acquiring more and more stuff is a meaningless pursuit devoid of purpose and fulfillment. “Goddamn it ... Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” The main theme of Fight Club runs counter to much of what consumer advertising preys on — we won’t find happiness or the meaning of our lives in the shopping mall or in the click of a mouse.

Research has proved that people who can afford to buy and hold on to more material goods are not necessarily more satisfied with their lives. Indeed, the reverse is often true. Economist Richard Layard has researched the relationship between growth, hyper-consumerism and happiness. His findings are illustrated by a graph on which one line represents a soaring increase of income and personal consumption per capita since 1950 (it has more than doubled) and the other line, marking Americans and Britons that describe themselves as “very happy” in an annual Gallup survey, remains flat. In fact, the number of people reporting to be “very happy” peaked in 1957 just as the conspicuous cycle of “work and spend,” and a revolution of rising materialistic expectations, began. Happiness became an elusive moving target. Nothing was ever enough.

Telling societal indicators paint a vivid picture of this decrease in well-being. Since 1960 the divorce rate has doubled in the United States; teen suicide rates have tripled; violent crime has quadrupled; the prison population has quintupled; and the percentage of babies born to unmarried parents has sextupled. Not exactly indicators of a satisfied consumer society. And it is only getting worse, as indicated by the massive increase in depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, and obesity since the 1980s. As political scientist Robert Lane comments in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, “The appetite of our present materialism depends upon stirring up our wants —  but not satisfying them.” Economists describe this emotional phenomenon as the “hedonic treadmill.” We work hard to acquire more stuff but feel unfulfilled because there is always something better, bigger, and faster than in the present. The distance between what we have and what we want, the “margins of discontent,” widens as the number of things we own increases. In other words, the more we have, the more we want.

We are taught to dream and desire new things from an early age, when asked frequently “What do you want for Christmas?” or “What do you want for your birthday?” Susan Fournier and Michael Guiry, former associate marketing professors at Harvard Business School, conducted a study called Consumption Dreaming Activity. They asked participants, “What things would you like to own or do someday?” Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the lists varied little regardless of sex, income, education or standard or living. Generally speaking, lists were full of desires for material possessions; almost half the sample (44 percent) mentioned new cars; more than one in four (29 percent) listed luxury items such as yachts, antiques, jewelry, and designer clothes; and 16 percent just asked for the money — enough to buy anything they could possibly want. Where the study gets most interesting is not just the type of items respondents wrote down but the level of detail and elaboration they included; 42 percent of all things listed were described vividly. One participant wrote down not just wanting a car but “an emerald green Jaguar.”

5/9/2011 8:42:37 PM

"What if more consumers opted for access over ownership, use over possession, experience over “stuff”? Material wants and needs wouldn’t be in conflict with the responsibilities of a connected, environmentally conscious citizen." Well what if we lived in Cuba? We'd already be there. No thanks.

5/9/2011 7:48:25 PM

Did anyone but me notice the irony of all the ADVERTISING to the right, and below this article?

1/10/2011 3:05:06 PM

Old ways die hard, Me myself and I, we will call community I get it the goal each every day to earn more to have more. I have looked in my own bag of tricks to find a way to walk the line to keep the importance of the environment as a priority I keep failing each day. I understand and believe the global recession to well being a victim of a down seized market. So I am shaking it off and reengaging but I want to do it right. Therefor I am reeducating myself to make an impact in Collaborative Consumption in ownership, access, and most important my Reputation.

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