Consumerism now is all about instant gratification at the best price. We want our products as quickly and easily as possible, and the consumer product space is designed to deliver. Gone are the days where you had to take a trip to the store and interact with the things you wanted to buy. Be it food, clothing or toilet paper, when we want or need something, we have the ability to buy it, and often with the ease of a click.
Some reports indicate we consume twice as many material goods today as we did 50 years ago. Plastic and manufacturing technologies are largely the cause for this growth, answering global demands for convenience and access with innovations that bring more products to more people than ever before.
Single-use plastics such as dining and takeout disposables (i.e. plastic cutlery, straws, foam containers), sachets (thin, pouch-like items used to package consumables like shampoo or condiments) and most food packaging have made it more convenient to purchase and use products on the go. Packaging products in smaller iterations also creates access by bringing down upfront costs for consumers, driving consumption.
Some items that used to be made out of high-value, durable material, such as furniture, housing fixtures and even car parts, are now partly or entirely made out of plastic. Designed not to last so much as “do the job,” these lower quality items tend to be less expensive than their higher quality counterparts and tend to be viewed as replaceable or disposable from the perspective of consumers.
Because plastic costs less than steel, aluminum, glass or wood and has become less expensive to produce virgin than it is to recover, this is view is shared by the companies that produce these items. The pressure on manufacturers and brands to deliver profits is all but slowing down. This keeps companies from innovating for the long-haul, instead motivating them to create products designed to break or become obsolete.
Electronic technologies, for example, upgrade every few months. Their accessories and operating systems are designed to be incompatible so that the purchase of a new suite becomes essential. Consumers have been so enabled by these technologies that these upgrades become necessary purchases and ones made knowing that the next upgrade is right around the corner.
It does not go without saying that this current trend is unsustainable; I choose this phrasing because this concept remains far from mind for most consumers and low priority for companies and brands. While recycling is one solution for both the world’s waste problem and the increasing strain on the earth’s finite resources, it is only a reaction to the systemic issue that is present: the perception of resource disposability and culture of overconsumption.
What shackles us to overconsumption is the current idea of ownership. The norms of our society drive us to work towards owning a car, taking out a mortgage on a home or buying a new outfit for an important event. This is also the case for items used infrequently, like a tuxedo or evening gown, a snowblower or a rowing machine. The notion that sole ownership, which offers emotional and social benefit, equals success keeps us sliding down the path of overshooting our resources, despite the fact that these items could be shared or rented to receive the same functional benefit or result.
But consumers can only consume what is available to them. It is up to manufacturers and brands to change the paradigm around consumption by offering high-quality products designed for reuse, and convey that these are equal or superior in value to single-use, disposable items. Creating access around products by commodifying sharing and service structures unlocks potential for profitable business in the circular economy.
The paradigm is already shifting; the success of disruptors like AirBnb, Lyft and Rent the Runway prove that consumers are willing to consume differently if the option were available. Taking a page from the circular systems of the past, the sharing and service space is diversifying and growing more competitive as the values of the modern consumer trend toward experiences and positive consumption. Even luxury brands are answering consumer demands by partnering up with retailers to facilitate access to their goods through rental.
Companies are in position to pioneer the continued shift away from a linear towards a circular product economy that is at once regenerative and restorative. There’s no doubt that we use products to enhance and improve our lives. Redefining how to access these products, and rewarding the companies that work to influence in this paradigm, is key to changing course.