HomeResourcesCircular economyHow much do we care about owning the products we use?

How much do we care about owning the products we use?

lotRecent research has shown that the number of people who own their own homes is at a 30 year low and, with growing anxiety about young people being unable to get on the property ladder, the government has started to act. In the budget, Philip Hammond aimed to revive “the dream of home ownership” by abolishing the stamp duty for homes up to £300,000, designed to appeal to the group increasingly known as ‘generation rent’.

Having your own home is still considered something to aim for, something that comes with stability and financial security. But, while attitudes towards home ownership are fairly constant, as society changes, how do people feel about other forms of ownership?

There are potential new patterns of consumption
Increasingly, we’re recognising that a sustainable future must involve different patterns of consumption, including new business models that shift ownership. One such model is a ‘product-service system’ (PSS), whereby products and services are bundled together. So, where consumers would traditionally have simply bought and owned a product, other options become possible. This might just mean that items come with extended warranties or maintenance packages, but more radical shifts would see people sharing products or even simply buying the function they provide in the form of a service, like washing or household lighting.

The assumption has been that people might be willing to relinquish ownership and embrace ‘collaborative consumption’, predominantly because it will save them money, but also because it seems fairer to pay only for what is used, and not be responsible for maintenance or repair. And such systems could, in some instances, be used to instantly gratify their desires without huge upfront outlay.

But, before leaping from this assumption to action, the government and policy makers would do well to understand barriers to the successful introduction of such schemes, including how they might relate to people’s deeply held values. As part of a project for the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIE-MAP), of which Green Alliance is a partner, researchers at the University of Cardiff are testing how people feel about ownership, and how they will actually respond to these new business models.

What they’ve discovered is that a desire for ownership isn’t the only potential barrier to uptake. In fact, in some instances, it really isn’t a concern at all.

People don’t only care about ownership
A recent paper, ‘Is ownership the issue? The role of responsibility in determining public acceptance of product-services systems’, answers its question with an intriguing ‘sometimes’. In sharing based schemes where people rent, share or borrow products owned by the community or by corporate entities (exemplified by the ‘library of things’ on the one hand and Uber on the other), people were generally happy not to own the products concerned. In schemes where people pay per unit of use, however, entering into agreements for the use of furniture, for instance, or for ‘mobility as a service’, in the model of Riversimple, they were much more concerned about ownership.

When considering sharing based systems, workshop participants were not terribly concerned that they would no longer own items like power tools, kitchen appliances or cars. This could be because people’s relationship with these objects changed so much through the scheme, with products no longer kept at home for long periods of time, only being there when needed.

Instead, the idea of responsibility was of much greater concern. People wanted to know who would have to ensure the products worked and were clean and safe, and they wanted a clear delineation of duties in this regard. One participant, Arnie, for instance, suggested that the objects “should be centrally owned somehow” by the council or government, who would be responsible for their services “because they would need to be serviced, I think, much more regularly”.

In pay-per-unit type schemes, on the other hand, the workshop participants struggled to understand a system where objects like lighting or even a car could potentially be in their full time possession, but they would not own them (or even be on the path to owning them, as with traditional car leasing models). Ownership, therefore, was of much greater concern, and participants were particularly worried that the businesses that retained ownership of the products would create contracts with small print or loopholes designed to make them pay more.

So, although they were told services would include repair and maintenance, the participants imagined multiple circumstances where additional charges for repair or maintenance would fall on their heads, or where the fear of accidentally damaging an object would make them less comfortable in their own homes. Ralph, for instance, cynically noted: “I would be worried in this scenario what the catch is going to be because they’re always there. I don’t care whether it’s your washing machine, your television, once you go into those type of contracts and it’s not your own, there is always some sort of penalty that’s hid away.”

As Philip Hammond has recognised, the dream of home ownership is one that’s not going away. However, people might be happier to relinquish ownership of some things in some situations as part of a more resource efficient and cost effective system. What is clear though, is that price and convenience are not the only things people care about. There are other concerns, including the values people hold in relation to responsibility. CIE-MAP’s research suggests that people will only engage with these more circular business models if the distribution of responsibilities is clear, upfront and fair.

[Image: Library of Things]

Written by

Libby is head of resource policy at Green Alliance.