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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7 responses

  1. I agree that on a certain level renting makes our life better and you mentioned rent-to-own.

    The only point I would like to make is that if it makes life easier, it also makes life more expensive. Especially renting a house. My parents have been renting for their whole life and here they are after 36 years of marriage: of course no mortgage but no property either. If they had taken on a mortgage the repayments would have had been similar – if not cheaper – than their rent and now, at the dawn of retirement they would have a place of their own.

    Rent-to-own, a fancy word for “your car/furniture/whatever is giving you a mortgage”, I think is a good solution, something I just don't get why has not been installed way earlier. Maybe because owners tend to see their belongings as profit maximization assets and do not want to get rid of it, but I do believe it should appear more often and not only for cars or furniture.

    1. Thanks for the comment Josephine. The financial viability of renting your home depends on your market – in San Francisco renting turns out to the better option more times than not. There's a cool rent vs. buy calculator here:….

      Rent-to-own might be a good option for 'goods', but isn't really what I'd like to see. The article speaks to the idea of just owning less – renting things that we don't use very often instead of buying them. The less we consume, the better off the planet, and the fewer possessions we have, the less we stress about them.


  2. Rent to own is now a HUGE business in the US – even cars are available on a rent to own basis. The only problem is that this market caters to those with bruised credit histories. As a result these companies have come under a lot of scrutiny from poverty advocates.

    Nevertheless, i think the model is here to stay. Suffice it to say that Walmart has now entered the rent to own car business.

    Check it out here:

  3. Rent to own isn't what we're talking about. We're talking about just renting – using the service of whatever it is but never owning. ie – what you want is clean dishes, you don't want a dishwasher. What you want is cold beer, you don't want a fridge. Question is how to deliver these things in a way that means less owning of “stuff”.

    Rent-to-own is generally a serious scam.

  4. I understand the concept of renting and not owning vs. rent to own. However, indefinitely renting an item (whatever it may be) is much more expensive than buying it outright.

    The only thing that makes rent to own businesses a little shady, and what tends to get them in hot water is that they will take back the merchandise when a payment is missed even if they customer is almost done with the contract. Then they turn around and rent it to someone else making big bucks on someone else's misfortune.

    So yes in this respect, rent to own can be seen in a negative light – but not a scam. Customers know what they are getting themselves into when they sign the initial contract rent to own contract. They are warned of the risks.

    However, there are a few companies that will let customers take back the merchandise if they cant make the payment without losing all the money they have already put into it. In this scenario, rent to own is not a bad deal at all.

    1. Renting an item, yes, renting a service – not necesarily. What if you paid a monthly fee to have a refrigerator and part of the deal was that the fridge company replaced it every few years with something upgraded – ie more efficient?

      Rent to own is a complete scam – it's preying on uneducated people who have no self control.

  5. Renting an item, yes, renting a service – not necesarily. What if you paid a monthly fee to have a refrigerator and part of the deal was that the fridge company replaced it every few years with something upgraded – ie more efficient?

    Rent to own is a complete scam – it's preying on uneducated people who have no self control.

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