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.
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.”
As the professors noted, “This level of detail and elaboration could reflect that consumers have ‘perfect things’ in mind when they formulate wish lists.” Here we see the amount of time and headspace most of us give to future purchases. Not only do the things we own fill up our closets and our lives, but they also fill our minds.
The ideological debate between those who believe in self-interest as the purest way to maximize production and those who believe that it operates as an affront to the collective good and equality has dominated our political, economic and philosophical discourse for centuries. But while we’ve debated, the world has continued undistracted down a path of self-destructive growth. It is through the fog of anxiety that Collaborative Consumption has emerged with a simple consumer proposition. It meets all the same consumer needs as the old model of mass consumption but helps address some of our most worrying economic and environmental issues. While it is complex to audit and project the entire environmental impact of Collaborative Consumption, it reduces the number of new products and raw materials consumed and it creates a different consumer mindset.
When Jonathon Porritt was chairman of the Ecology Party in the U.K. from 1978 to 1984, he and his colleagues struggled with what became known as the Great Washing Machine Debate. Porritt, a leading environmental-thought leader in the U.K., serves as an adviser to many entities, from Marks & Spencer to Prince Charles to the sustainability think tank Forum for the Future. In the 1980s, when he was still active in the Ecology Party, which would later be renamed the Green Party, he was faced with the problem of what to do with the deterioration of one of the first mainstream product service systems: the laundromat. At the time, masses of people were going to shopping centers to purchase personal home washing machines, either for the first time, for upgrade or for replacement, resulting in what Porritt calls a “staggering increase in the number of personally owned machines.” Between 1964 and 1992, the percentage of homes in the U.K. alone with washing machine rose from 53 percent to 88 percent. At the same time, 50 percent of all launderettes closed. Given that the average home washing machine was only used four to five times a week and consumed more than 21.7 percent of our personal water usage, and that each year around 2 million used washing machines were being discarded, Porritt and his colleagues were concerned. The move away from collective services and toward a self-service society had serious environmental implications.
The Ecology Party considered two choices: Lobby for some form of governmental taxation and incentives, or undertake a strong messaging program to change the consumer mindset back toward using laundromats. Neither option was attractive. Government was slow and infatuated with economic growth over sustainable causes. And a strong messaging campaign would only alienate the consumer. “By being over-prescriptive you become your own worst enemy and force people into even more defensive and negative behavior,” Porritt said.
The Great Washing Machine Debate was just one example of a larger struggle taking place in the environmental movement. How do you address the public and inspire sustainable behavior without being negative or dogmatic? According to Porritt, this issue is still huge in the environmental movement today, which recognizes the inefficacy of trying to guilt people into a more sustainable choice but nonetheless struggles to find an alternative.
Fast-forward 20 years, and there is a different answer to the Great Washing Machine Debate and the conflict between enticing self-interest and ensuring social good. It exists at 122 Folsom St. in San Francisco. Brainwash is a laundromat founded in 1999 by Jeffrey Zalles. Zalles admits that his primary concern isn’t being green. What he’s done is figured out how to make Laundromats cool again. Brainwash woos customers with additional offerings of a café, happy hours, live music, stand-up comedy nights, pinball machines, free Wi-Fi, and even a place to do your homework. The space is bright and modern, with indoor and outdoor seating, cool music playing, funky artwork on the walls and helpful, friendly staff — a little different from the dark and dingy experience associated with most laundromats.
A big part of Brainwash’s success is based on a simple insight: Customers need something to do while waiting for their laundry to finish, and it needs to be better than what they would do at home. That’s why the sense of community that Zalles has built through cultural events and Meetups is so smart and critical. “Everyone who comes here could afford to get their own home washing machine . . . but where is the fun in that!” says Zalles. Indeed, the demand for Brainwash is so overwhelming that he is looking to open more franchises this year.
The idea behind Brainwash is simple, but the behavioral impact is significant. And by doing so it achieves seemingly opposing outcomes: clean clothes, fun, friends, affordability and environmental responsibility. Instead of forcing consumers to sacrifice personal convenience and comfort for the doing the right thing, Jeff makes the right thing more attractive. By diversifying the motivations and putting the emphasis on consumer experience over a prescriptive sense of obligation, Brainwash achieves Porritt’s goal with barely a whimper of activist politics. Brainwash hardly identifies itself with its purpose. Does it exist to provide a cheap alternative to get your clothes washed? Is it a cool café and culture club where you can hobnob and hang out? Or is a powerful green statement? The answer, of course, is all of the above.
The key difference in Brainwash’s approach to the Great Washing Machine Debate is that instead of trying to change consumers, the system itself has changed to accommodate needs and wants in a more sustainable and appealing way, with little burden on the individual. In this respect, Collaborative Consumption actually enables an entitled, self-interested consumer who is so well-served he doesn’t even realize he is doing something different or “good.” By taking an indirect, open-ended approach, Collaborative Consumption enables consumers to break down the stereotypes of collectivism or environmentalism and simply do what works the best for them. It is so intuitive to our basic needs that consumers often fall into it by accident. One could argue that it doesn’t matter whether the system leads to a change in mindset as long as it converts our consumption into positive outcomes: fewer products, more efficient usage, less material consumed, reduced waste and more social capital.
We’ve seen certain consistent and specific motivations for participating in Collaborative Consumption: cost savings, coming together, convenience, and being more socially conscious and sustainable. The fact that it attracts new consumers based on traditional self-interested motivation, including money, value and time, and that it converts this into positive social and environmental outcomes, should not distract from its overall impact on consumer behavior.
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. Consumption is no longer an asymmetrical activity of endless acquisition but a dynamic push and pull of giving and collaborating in order to get what you want. Along the way, the acts of collaboration and giving become an end in itself. Collaborative Consumption shows consumers that their material wants and needs do not need to be in conflict with the responsibilities of a connected citizen. The idea of happiness being epitomized by the lone shopper surrounded by stuff becomes absurd, and happiness becomes a much broader, more iterative process.
Reprinted with permission from What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.