Share/Rent or Own?


I have just finished reading the final essays from my classes at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability. One about providing services instead of products, per se, struck a chord. I have been studying, for a while, this alternative to the more common direct purchasing offers made by companies catering to consumer market. The subject of the potential eco-efficiency of services compared to product markets has been around for a couple of decades, at least. For a time, it was a serious topic in my old field of industrial ecology. The provision of automobile sharing, as in Zipcars, is one of the few cases where this idea has taken root.

The interest in services, as opposed to owning after purchase, lies in the lowering of environmental impacts potentially available by reducing the number of cars or vacuum cleaners, etc. Sharing can produce numbers of lifetime uses of shared devices far greater than are available from single-owner devices that spends most of their lives in the closet or garage. The potential savings depends on the contributions to impacts from the manufacturing and disposal phases of the life cycle relative to those coming from its use. For cars driven by a single owner everyday, the use phase tends to dominate, but for the stereotypical “little old lady,” the opposite may be true. in this case, it would be better for the environment to share the use of a single vehicle. In addition to the environmental benefits, sharing systems can provide social benefits by enabling those who cannot afford to purchase the device to use it on demand.

The concept is also consistent with the need to rebuild community as a precursor for sustainability. Single purchases rarely create connections to the nameless, faceless salespersons in the hygienic surroundings of bigbox stores. I did, however, recently have an experience at Sears that runs counter to this. In the past 3 or 4 years, several of our major appliances have needed to be replaced. These were installed 30 or 40 years ago when appliances were built to last and they certainly did. When the refrigerator failed a few weeks ago, we went to Sears again, and as we walked into the appliance section, one of the salesmen approached and said, “I see you are back again.” Pretty remarkable these days in the commodified atmosphere of shopping.

I hauled out the manuscript of a talk on so-called, product-service systems (PSS), I delivered at a conference of the European Roundtable on Cleaner Production at least 10 years ago. The paper was directed more to introducing the basic concepts of sustainability that I now routinely discuss and teach, but then these ideas were a little foreign both to me and my audiences. Unlike the position taken at that conference, I now think that PSS can contribute to sustainability in a categorical different manner than eco-efficiency. The use of a device taken out of the closet is existentially distinct from one borrowed or rented for a specific use.

In the first case, once the user has gotten over the initial learning phase, each successive use will be transparent, as the device becomes, in Heidegger’s language, ready-to-hand. This means that it will be used without consciously thinking about it. It becomes a piece of equipment that is always waiting to be picked up and used whenever the actor starts to act to satisfy some intentional objective requiring its services. The device may have been purchased without much thought, under the the persuasive power of advertising or some other social context. So many devices are omnipresent in almost every setting today that people seem to go through each day picking up one device after another. The automaticity that surrounds this scenario strongly suggests that the actors are operating in an inauthentic mode, and are not mindful of whatever domains are being taken care of. The mindlessness inhibits the actor from making any conscious, reflective assessment of satisfaction amidst the continuous flow of activities, and may shape repetitive, additive-like behaviors.

The use of shared or rented devices produces an entirely different existential experience. Whenever an actor intends to do something requiring a device that is not ready-to-hand, a breakdown occurs in the mindlessness of the flow that has brought the actor to that moment. The actor becomes conscious of whatever was the intention, and must stop before continuing toward its completion. The missing presence of the needed device or service becomes obtrusive, that is, it takes over the moment and forces the actor to reflect on the situation. Voila, the actor can now examine (reflect on) what has been going on, and continue or not, but whatever decision is made, the choice will be authentic. Further, the actor can examine the intention itself and recognize what domain of care was to be addressed. The veil of need that is so present in ordinary mindless activities becomes transparent and the actor can proceed towards genuine satisfaction.

This integral scene in the playbook of sharing can be made more powerful if the process of procuring the services involves an further explicit step: revealing the underlying domain of care. A rental or sharing agency could routinely ask the customer/client for what purpose, or more precisely, what domain of care is the target of the object being sought. The question further deepens the reflection process and can explicate the specific domain and the whole concept of care. This process would, of course, require the cooperation of the source agency and the procurer who might object to the incursion on privacy. If sustainability were high on the values of both parties, this potential obstacle would disappear. Zipcar could ask each user to think about a question like, “What cares will renting this vehicle satisfy?” Taylor Rental might ask a similar question to a customer looking to rent a log-splitter. The answers are not as important as the raising of consciousness of care, not of need, as the parent of intention and action. I have often written that we will have a real shot at sustainability when the greeter at the entrance of every WalMart’s asks everyone walking in, “Do you really need the things on your list?’ or “What cares brought into the store today?”