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Will we really share our stuff in the name of sustainability?

Date: 9 Jan 2014

In a recent interview, the green-minded CEO of Kingfisher (parent group of the B&Q do-it-yourself home improvement chain) Ian Cheshire, said that an area that the company wanted to focus more on in future is 'collaborative consumption'. The example he gave was getting customers sharing tools with clusters of friends. "It's a more sustainable model than simply using tools and then disposing of them", he said.

This is an area that I always find fascinating because it's simply so difficult. Our natural propensity, as consumers, is to want our own stuff, our own space, end of story. Certainly when it comes to things we have for the home. And it's also one of the reasons why car-sharing schemes at companies struggle to get to scale - because people feel the same way about their space.

Indeed, even in the business context it is a challenge. When Interface Carpets experimented with changing their business carpet product into a service - it was a potentially powerful model of making market forces work for sustainability. When one small part of the carpet became worn, rather than making the most profit by encouraging the customer to buy a whole new carpet, selling it as a service actually rewarded the careful, professional replacement of the worn part only.

The main problem? Customers weren't biting. Even within the office environment, they preferred to own their own carpet and replace the whole thing when it had passed its best.

So what would Kingfisher have to do to make this a successful operation? I don't know what their current plans are, but for me one of the key words in what Cheshire says above is the "clusters of friends".

Given the state of online technology, it would be easy to create an app that would help track the current keeper of a particular tool amongst a small cluster of friends who had signed up to the scheme. You could see how this system could be initiated when people saw the benefit of having access to a particularly expensive tool that none of them wanted to bear the sole cost of, but which they would be happy to share.

But then once you've started using that system, why not start pooling existing tools as well? And then you've gotten into the habit of using that system, so you might start to use it for smaller items.

And because this is a small arrangement of friends, there is that degree of "this is ours" that can get over that ownership barrier.

In theory.

I still think it's likely that even that would struggle to make scale, even though undoubtedly some would take it up. There would have to be some significant point-of-sale incentive to do it in this way.

And you have to add to that the simple marketplace proposition that - unlike Interface Carpet's experiment - market signals will generally point in the opposite direction when it comes to people sharing tools. Why does it benefit B&Q to do this, when it might lead to people buying fewer individual tools for themselves? It's great to see a visionary company do something that is for the general good, but may reduce profits marginally. But a shift to 'collaborative consumption' will only really gain widescale acceptance if it can become a vehicle for better business success, not a cost to it.

Because ultimately nobody is demanding this. We don't want to share our stuff. We need to be encouraged, cajoled and seduced in order to do it - but that's not exactly the surefire business model.

And yet, just because it's hard, it doesn't mean it's not worth doing. To add another example, Marks & Spencer has tried to encourage a form of collaborative consumption with its 'shwopping' initiative. That has struggled in its early forms because it goes against the grain of how people behave.

But all of these experiments are gathering lessons and insights that may lead to the approach tomorrow that will be more successful. Many successful innovations were born from multiple early, failed, attempts. So it's always worth watching carefully what are companies doing in order to persuade us to share our stuff.

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