Our relationship with products and concept of ‘ownership’ is changing. New and not-so-new ways of consuming stuff have been given a new lease of life, with some exciting benefits for both people and planet.
Jack Hunter explores whether sharing, repairing, reusing and recycling will go truly mainstream after the Covid-19 pandemic.
War, revolution and state failures can sweep away established social norms. Failing systems don’t survive a crisis. New, better-suited ways of doing things were probably there to begin with and quickly become the new normal. We once thought wearing masks in the street was weird. Now we don’t.
Looming behind today’s health crisis are serious system failures linked to the way we consume goods. Put simply, we buy and waste too much and the massive over-exploitation of our planet is going to get really ugly if we don’t change our ways. Happily, less harmful ways of using goods are fast becoming popular. How quickly the problems will push these solutions into the mainstream is hard to know, but we live in changing times.
Most of us tend to buy stuff, use it, then chuck it away. The pattern is convenient, but getting us into all kinds of trouble. Thankfully, there are now many more ways to consume. Leasing (renting for a cost) and sharing (for free) are examples of ‘circular consumption’, because they are considered more ecological.
Leasing and sharing are not new, but have grown massively in recent years thanks to digital tools like the internet and trust-based systems, such as user ratings. These advances helped overcome the convenience and trust barriers holding back circular consumption, and expanded its reach. For example, the range of products we can now rent has exploded in recent years to cover all manner of goods that were traditionally something we would own, like washing machines and e-scooters. Apps and websites make sharing with neighbours, collectives or total strangers throughout our community cheap, reliable and low cost – a fraction of the cost of commercial hire-shops with minimal or no paperwork.
Thriving on thrift
Reuse is a third example of circular consumption that has been boosted by the internet. Flea markets have enabled the reuse of a wide range of goods for hundreds of years, but the same system now has beautiful, user-friendly, secure and stigma-free market spaces online, with international access and a more reliable idea of item quality.
This all has very tangible benefits. Customer experience will change. High quality machines can now be rented very flexibly for a fraction of the cost of buying the same item. The environment could benefit. If we all share a high quality, efficient and repairable power tool, fewer items are purchased, requiring less materials and creating less waste. It filters through to our community life. Sharing and even renting models are helping build a sense of community in some cities. In philosophical terms, ‘circular consumption’ could be changing the way we think about property and ownership and boosting community trust and engagement.
Leasing and sharing have their advantages and disadvantages. It is now very easy to rent goods and services at a fraction of the cost of ownership, they will likely be high quality, efficient and accessed flexibly. But over the long-term, renting will likely cost more than traditional ownership, so there is a trade-off between service and cost.
For sharing, if one person loans a power drill to their community, there are obvious benefits for social relations, reduced community costs, reduced consumption and waste. But access or damage disputes can occur. Reusing stuff by buying secondhand typically saves money and could unlock some novel fashion benefits. The item might or might not stand the test of time, and is unlikely to look shiny and new.
Besides the pros and cons, people’s tastes vary. Some are control freaks, some are tech geeks. Character traits mean we mix and match the different consumption styles according to our personal preferences. The ‘working life’ of an object, such as a laptop or a washing machine, may pass between different models, starting off as a rental item, being sold on to an ownership model, reused by another owner, repaired and eventually recycled.
One consistent benefit of sharing, renting, reusing, repairing and recycling is their potential to reduce the amount of stuff we consume, lowering waste and helping the environment. If something is easier to fix or is more recyclable, it is less likely to end up being buried or burned. If two people share a drill, only one drill is needed. This is important because humans are consuming too many resources and this is leading to massive extraction, waste, pollution and climate problems.
The harder we get materials to ‘work’, and the more waste materials can be put ‘back to work’, the better: use things rather than use them up, from the resource efficiency and over-extraction perspectives. Circular consumption models are not guaranteed to be better for the planet, but they have great potential. A company can choose to rent goods that are easy to repair or recycle, or not. Much depends on their values.
Repair and recycling of goods contribute to ‘circular consumption’ patterns. Substantial EU research shows that people are ready to embrace a return to the widespread repairing of possessions that their grandparents practised.
The Right to Repair movement is flowering and there is a growing number of product repair shops on the high street. Manufacturers are increasingly using recycled content in prestige products. Recycled plastic is now able to match the quality of virgin plastic in terms of performance, design and appearance, so much so that consumers do not notice the difference, according to research by the PolyCE project. So perhaps it is not a surprise that the latest top of the range laptop from Apple is made from recycled tin and plastic. Consumers just need a little more signposting towards such products and we could see these trends adopted much more widely.
Image credits: EEB / Francesco Pirini / PolyCE