The Rented Life: Can We Live Without Owning?

By Simon Dunne

Ownership drives our economic engine. It’s an easy equation:  you make money to buy things. You make more money, you buy more and better things. You drive your car. You watch your TV. Ownership is a necessity that’s been ingrained in us.  It represents a certain level of achievement, comfort, and status. The more you own, the better you’re doing.

But how often do you drive that car? A couple times a day at most? How often do you watch that TV? An hour out of twenty-four? So, what do those things do for you when you’re not using them?

They just sit there. Most everything we own has significant down time. With resources shrinking and global demand bulging, that’s a problem. As any plant manager will tell you, idle time is wasted time. It’s inefficiency, and in business, inefficiency doesn’t fly.

We don’t always let it fly in our own lives either. We don’t buy a video we only plan to watch once; we go to the video store. The concept of renting is nothing new, but we have yet to see it as a planet saver.

It might be time to think again. A post by Paul Smith in April introduced DriveMyCar, a very cool new idea for renting your car when you’re not using it. And of course, there’s Zipcar, and a whole whack of non-profit car sharing programs, like City Car Share and CAN. It’s a simple concept, and we all learned it as kids: share.

But it’s a concept that has wider applicability than our four-wheelers, and as far as I can see, we’ve yet to fully realize it.

There are some old models that dabble with it. Rental centers are not a new thing – the big player in the U.S., Rent-A-Center has been in this game for more than 20 years. It rents everything from Lazy Boys to computers, and with Troy Aikman as its spokesman, the company must be doing well. Its focus though is rent-to-own, more of a financing plan than a “save the world through sharing” model.

The eco-conscious consumer is not on Rent-A-Center’s radar, I think it’s a missed market.

There are a lot of commitment-phobes out there subconsciously (or otherwise) avoiding ownership. They rent houses – suddenly a fiscally responsible thing to do – and they’re Zipcar members. But the offers seem to end there. Sure, if they want to rent heavy equipment, there are options, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy, consolidated solution for everyday, underused, stuff. The same people might avoid buying that new lawnmower or the skis they use twice a season, if it were easy on them.

It’s the Zipcar model, and just as importantly its marketing approach, expanded.

The rent-it life has its merits beyond green. It releases people from the burdens of ownership-–upkeep, maintenance, and storage.  The things we don’t think about when the shine of a brand-spanking new barbeque or fishing rod catches our eye.

Renting has the potential to greatly simplify our lives. And I think we should all own a little simplicity.

I invite your comments if you’re aware of any businesses tackling this!

Simon Dunne is a freelance Behavior Change Specialist, motivating consumers to make smarter choices for the environment.

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