Alex Steer

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Not the end of ownership

631 words

Another on-the-fly post, this time on the rising popularity of rent-don't-buy initiatives from everything from transport (Zipcar et al.) to handbags. I've read a few articles lately claiming more strongly than usual that this trend represents a shift towards a less materialistic mindset, especially among young urbanites in rich developed countries. Like most trends emergent among young urbanites in rich developed countries, it gets a lot of attention from marketers, especially because it carries with it the lingering prospect of manufacturers selling less stuff.

I'm a bit sceptical, though, I'll be honest. Okay, attitudinal shifts happen for a reason, not usually in isolation from economic conditions, but I wonder if there's genuinely any other driver behind rent-don't-buy than infrastructural improvement.

In South Africa, trains are rubbish and buses are worse. As a result, if you can afford a car, you drive everywhere. There are a lot of terrible cars on the roads, often held together with little more than gaffer tape and hope. For that infrastructural reason cars are status symbols, so SA comes crazily high up the international ranking of luxury car sales.

Killing the culture of the car in the rich suburbs of Cape Town or Pretoria would take a massive change to the infrastructure of transport. More high-class Gautrains, fewer life-in-your-hands minibus rides. Something to make cars less necessary, and so stop the next generation of kids from riding round in their dads' old bangers, dreaming of Maseratis and Mercedes. Something to make having any car, let alone a posh one, a bit less explicable.

In other words, exactly what's happened in London or New York.

Rent-don't-buy happens when societies get so good at building infrastructure to solve problems that individual control of solutions becomes less necessary. The trains are good, so why own a car? Online ordering and courier services are good, so why buy a Hermes bag when you can borrow one for a bit? Good infrastructure formalises the arrangements engineered informally in communities. You used to borrow a bag off a friend, now you borrow one off a stranger (and so get exactly the one you want).

But that's not post-materialism, even if it's post-ownership behaviour. In fact it's a harmonisation of materialism at the level of the infrastructure. Being a member of Zipcar means implicitly agreeing with thousands of other people on a collective definition of what is desirable in a car: saying that Zipcar's fleet is good enough. And, because the materialist infrastructure is so advanced, it probably is good enough. We can have access to what we desire when we need it without paying over the odds. Thanks, infrastructure.

Ownership isn't dead. Firstly, there's real risk of over-generalising the habits of the infrastructurally rich. In the rest of the world product/service networks are less reliable and less trusted, and ownership has huge and growing cachet. Bling is king in many emerging markets, and you can expect demand for pretty much every kind of manufactured good to rise explosively over the next decade. And that's not even to mention rural areas.

But secondly, even in the rich old markets, cases for ownership can still be made and made strongly (a good sign that materialism isn't going anywhere). Look at the growth of consumer electronics, a largely selfish category where having your own kit (in the latest model) confers real beneit and cachet. I'd be surprised to see iPad-sharing taking off, for example. Even in categories thoroughly colonised by sharing, such as luxury bags, there's room to build value in ownership. If I were trying to help a super-luxury handbag brand fight erosion from rental schemes, I might start by asking people about the value of heirlooms.

That's all for now. I'm blogging on an iPod, so sorry for any hideous big-fingered typos.

# Alex Steer (07/09/2010)