Will the 2010s mark the beginning of a major change? Hyper consumption appears to be coming under attack from three distinct angles. The first two have been identified as macro society issues: the environment, and how our style of development is incompatible with the conservation of the earth’s finite resources; the economy, and how the period of high growth that lasted from the end of World War II until the last quarter of the 20th century now appears to be an exception in the history of humanity and is forcing countries to face the future despite long-term lacklustre growth.
Changing the world with consumption
The third angle comes from within the world of consumption and is referred to as collaborative consumption. How is it different from our previous modes of consumption? Based on digital platforms that bring parties together and organise (market and non-market) transactions between individuals, collaborative consumption has brought the traditional model of supply and demand into question. In one transaction, the individual may be the provider of a product or service, while in another transaction they are the consumer. The owner of a garden may decide to open it up to his/her neighbours who enjoy gardening so they can grow vegetables. Similarly, the same person may then hire a car from another individual for a weekend trip to the country.
These horizontal transactions between individuals are, according to its promoters, a partial response to the afore-mentioned ecological and economic issues. By sharing material resources rather than making a new purchase, individuals are resisting planned obsolescence, and adopting milder and more eco-friendly forms of consumption, while spending less or generating additional revenue – something which has become vital in today’s sluggish economy. It also gives more nostalgic individuals a chance to revisit certain aspects of our former lifestyles, such as neighbourhood solidarity, growing your own produce, and the enjoyment of making everyday purchases.
Collaborative consumption under pressure
It is difficult to distance oneself from these promises, given how cloudy things appear. In terms of supply, the discourse on peer-to-peer sharing tends to overshadow the role of collaborative platforms. Like all economic agents innovating in the field of digital technology, these platforms all have one thing in common – they are giving traditional companies a run for their money. Until recently, this affected the non-material sectors of music, film and publishing, which were forced to reinvent their economic models to compete with the new digital companies. Now the service industry, with its material resources, is feeling the heat: taxis (with the arrival of Uber and Lift), the hotel industry (with AirBnB), rail transports (with BlablaCar), and car hire companies (with Drivy and Ouicar), to name but a few.
The consequences of both the disappearance and reappearance of intermediation have given rise to much controversy. Three issues in particular are worth noting. The first concerns the intentions of these collaborative platforms: are they simply one of many digital start-ups hoping to become ‘the next big one’ and who, like GAFAT (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Twitter), will implement fiscal optimisation strategies and/or sell personal data to increase profits? Or are they a new type of company that has struck the right balance between profitability on the one hand, and social economy and solidarity on the other? The second issue has to do with the discourse of slowing down consumption: instead of encouraging individuals to consume less, at best is collaborative consumption merely altering what consumers spend their money on (whatever money is saved on hotels by using AirBnB can be spent on restaurants and souvenirs)?; at worst, doesn’t it encourage more consumption through intensive buying and reselling on websites like LeBonCoin or Videdressing? The third issue is a macroeconomic one: by getting individuals involved in the coproduction of goods and services, are we simply replacing employment by a form of informal labour, which is neither officially recognised nor protected? Are we destroying the structure of paid employment? Or are we encouraging individuals to be more independent, entrepreneurial, and creative?
These issues are all the more important when you look at the users of the services in question. Initial studies point to a range of interconnected motivations among users: while the desire to ‘consume sensibly’ or generate occasional revenue largely dominate, most individuals are also keenly aware of other aspects of collaborative consumption, such as the desire to take advantage of new social opportunities or consume in a more sustainable way.
As always, digital technology produces nothing by itself but instead forces us to question our individual and collective behaviour. So how should we summarise collaborative consumption? Is it a partial response to a development model on the way out, or a reincarnation of informational capitalism? Only time will tell.
Consommation Collaborative - intro Valérie Peugeot par digitalsocietyforum
Consommation collaborative : Valérie Peugeot par digitalsocietyforum
Consommation collaborative : Anne-Sophie Novel par digitalsocietyforum
Consommation collaborative : Sophie Dubuisson... par digitalsocietyforum
Consommation collaborative : Benoit Sineau par digitalsocietyforum