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Owning Less Stuff

Owning Less Stuff

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Will economic innovations like “peer-to-peer renting” and “collaborative consumption” cut the roles manufacturing and selling goods hold in modern economies? Will renting instead of owning “stuff” lower consumption of energy and materials?

Online rental marketplaces have become common all over the industrialized world. For instance, “erento” was founded in 2003 in Berlin and now boasts 1.2 million rental items and 10,500 cooperating businesses, in 26 countries, for erento’s online customers to choose from. Erento offers two ways of renting: from a business which owns the desired item, or from an individual owner. Erento’s business model is getting paid for matching potential renters with owners; its motto appropriately is “Hire it all online.” The company website lists thousands of items a family might need occasionally – power drills, video projectors, leaf blowers and so on. For a fee, Erento will facilitate contact between a renter who wants a video projector for her family reunion and someone who has the right projector gathering dust in the closet.

Carsharing is a terrific example of efficiencies that come from renting instead of owning. Susan Shaheen, Ph.D., a researcher at UC Berkeley, and her team surveyed North American carshare members and concluded:
Carsharing can substantially reduce the number of vehicles owned by member households, despite the fact that 60 percent of all households joining carsharing are carless. Households joining carsharing owned an average of 0.47 vehicles per household before joining carsharing, but that average dropped to 0.24 after membership. Carshare households exhibited a dramatic shift towards a carless lifestyle. The vehicles shed are often older, and the carsharing fleet is an average of 10 mpg more efficient than the vehicles shed.

We are in a presidential campaign where American jobs is a big issue, and carsharing will lead to fewer new cars manufactured and fewer assembly-line and car-sales jobs. Downsizing will likely become reality in many other industries as renting rather than owning spreads. What happens to the people whose manufacturing and sales jobs go away? The American economy has made big transitions before, and just as there were buggy-whip makers who needed to recycle themselves for a changing economy, there will be pressures on many of us to apply our skills and talents differently. Facilitating such personal transitions is one government function that benefits everyone.

In addition to embracing collaborative consumption, some of the U.S. economy’s energy and genius needs to shift from manufacture-sales of hard goods to building human capital with better education and better social services. As I write this, Chicago public school teachers are continuing their strike, a strike which centers not on teacher pay (Chicago public school teachers already average $76,000 a year), but on other issues including teacher claims that Chicago children are being cheated out of resources they need to build successful, productive lives. The teacher strike and conditions in many school systems argue that we’ve focused too much on manufacturing and sales jobs and not enough on well-paying “soft power” jobs – teachers, counselors and social workers, and so forth – which help people improve themselves and their children. Americans collectively consume too much energy and too much physical stuff, and reshaping the economy towards goods-sharing and towards quality soft jobs will help the environment and, I suggest, increase happiness for most of us.


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