Consumerism at its peak: sharing instead of owning

When ZipCar was founded in 2000 I was attracted to the idea of replacing ownership with service as a paths toward sustainability: fewer cars to manufacture and fewer parking spaces to create. Since then, sharing instead of owning has skyrocketed, with Airbnb leading the pack. But it is clear to me that this is just another path toward feeding the culture of consumerism.   

Clothing rental, according to Vogue, has gone mainstream. Lord and Taylor, the venerable two-century-old flagship department store in New York is closing, bought for $100 million by the fashion rental business Le Tote. There are many systems for clothes rental in use but the most common seems to be one where a monthly subscription buys access to an unlimited closet, with thousands of items, available in small increments of a few at a time. The advertising is eerily reminiscent of the early days of ZipCar and Airbnb: as a personal experience that brings people together (“…this is more than a transaction. I think when you wear someone else’s jacket or dress, it brings us a little closer because that experience and that karma passes through”), and as less consumption (“seventy percent of what we buy ends up in the garbage within the first two years, but every time you wear a rented item you reduce its carbon footprint and extend its lifespan”). The first one is nonsensical, but what about the second one?

I belong to the baby boomers generation, with perhaps outdated attitude toward fashion. But I try to imagine myself as a subscriber to a clothing rental service. In this scenario, each morning I decide what to wear in the office. There are thousands of choices before me, all attractive looking, each representing a different image. How to choose? I have no idea, so perhaps I will choose something different every day. I am not kidding: according to Vogue there are women who stop by at a rental place on the way to work to select clothes for the day. The same conundrum repeats itself with evening clothes. I can just imagine this becoming an all absorbing preoccupation: choosing, trying on, picking up and dropping off, observing what others wear and aiming to recreate some looks, planning what to choose next time, taking notes, checking things out, following the trends.

This brings the consumerist culture to a whole new level, which is exactly the opposite of what is needed to move toward less consumption-oriented society.



What have we learned about consumer society from the pandemic?

The U.S. must be the most competitive society on earth. It certainly moves the economy forward but we pay high price for it in in a diminished well-being.

It starts at birth and never lets out. Well-to-do educated parents especially, compete through their children: on what daycare center or kindergarten their children attend, how many cool-sounding afterschool programs they participate in (learning Mandarin and gourmet cooking before they can even read are some of those), and of course, what college they attend.

Sometime it reaches absurd proportions. During soccer games organized by parents (spontaneous neighborhood ball games are extinct species) adults scream from the sidelines, occasionally getting even into physical fights. There have been attempts to deemphasize competition in these games, but that spirits lives on. Last year, during a soccer game I watched a young mother (a relative of mine) get seriously concerned when her four year old son was observing interesting cloud formations in the sky instead of exhibiting a killer instinct. I read not so long ago about a children book club where the readers competed on how many books they read each month. I wonder if these kids ever reflected on what they had just read.

I also recall a conviction on insider trading on Wall Street, in which the bribe consisted of a help with someone’s child into a coveted kindergarten. And of course, there is the recent highly publicized scandal of celebrities and other wealthy parents spending hundreds of thousand dollars to get their (I suppose not so bright) children into good colleges. In the insanely competitive process of college admission in the U.S. young athletes are especially valued. A lot of it has to do with competitive spirit: achievements in sports indicate a highly prized very competitive personality.

It is about everything, not just children: how many laps in a swimming pool, how many bedrooms and bathrooms in the house, how large the income. No wonder the billionaires never cease the efforts to accumulate more money; it is not about having more, it is about outcompeting the other guy. No wonder the U.S. leads in wealth inequality; the competitive personalities at the top of the pyramid always push for more. No wonder the frequency of depression and anxiety is rapidly increasing among children, from very young to college age. No wonder the competitive consumption is destroying the planet.

Do we gain much from all this competition? We surely do; the aggregate economic growth in the U.S. is strong in comparison with other OECD countries (I am not addressing the huge inequalities within that growth). But we also lose a lot. Apart from the psychological toll, the growing wealth inequality, and the climate impacts of competitive consumption, the joy of life is compromised. I was recently listening on the radio to an interview with an international champion of ping-pong, who was comparing the cultures of this game in Japan and the U.S. This is what he said (I paraphrase from memory): “When I play in the US I have only two options: win or lose; and both are a losing proposition for my well-being. If I win, I know that my opponent will try to take revenge on me tomorrow, and that gives me anxiety. When I lose, I anxiously toss and turn all night, trying to figure out what I did wrong and how I let my fans down. On the other hand, in a Japanese ping-pong club winning is a secondary goal. The primary goal is the overall experience for everybody. It matters a great deal that the atmosphere in the club is nice, that both players as well as the fans enjoy themselves, that people are kind to each other. Regardless of the outcome I walk away from the game feeling good.”

I am convinced that our lives would be so much more enjoyable will less competition.