Are American consumers really wired for collaborative consumption?

Are American consumers really wired for collaborative consumption?

“Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.” White Noise, Don DeLillo

There’s something seemingly un-American about collaborative consumption. In 2008, during the early days of the recession, Congress passed the Economic Stimulus Act. We were given a tax rebate and encouraged not to save it or use it to pay down debt, but to go out and buy something – to help America spend its way out of recession. A 2012 Federal Reserve Report on consumer spending indicates that for 25 years, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) had been the primary economic driver for the U.S. economy, hitting an all-time high in 2007 – making up 70% of GDP. But consumer spending has stalled due to a perfect storm of declining household wealth, low job growth, weak consumer confidence, declining home values and tightened credit requirements. Many economists are even calling for a restructuring of our economy to make it less reliant on consumer spending.

For years, sustainability advocates have been calling for the same thing – albeit for different reasons. We’ve been hearing a lot about the new “collaborative economy,” and there has certainly been an explosion of bartering, sharing and other collaborative consumption websites like airbnb (a travel accommodations/home sharing site which claims 500% growth – out-pacing all other hotel chains combined).

But is sustainability really the driver for more environmentally responsible forms of consumption, like reuse and sharing? Is the recent growth of collaborative consumption an indication of a lasting cultural shift? We’re not so sure. Just under a quarter (23%) of our Eco Pulse™ 2012 respondents said they most often “buy used and/or repair items rather than buying new items.” Who are they? Primarily older people and those with lower household incomes. And while Millennials were not likely to be in this group, Actives (our greenest segment) were. Somewhat contrary results from recent client work indicate that reuse isn’t necessarily seen as the “greenest” alternative and that, given a choice, Actives might actually prefer to buy shiny new green products rather than sharing or buying pre-owned.

We’re a nation “wired” for consumption. The American dream is built upon economic success and acquisition. While recent economic trends have fostered the growth of new consumption models, we’ll see if our increased appetite for rental, trading and reuse “sticks” in an improving economy. We plan to dig into this issue more in Eco Pulse™ 2013. And we’re considering a new study, specifically centering on consumer acceptance of alternative consumption models. Let us know if you’re interested.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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