by Melanie Herrmann

"Happiness does not come from having much, but from being attached to little.“
Venerable Cheng Yen

While scientist Marsha Richins of the University of Missouri is proving that wanting stuff makes us happier than having stuff, it seems that people are in fact beginning to think more about what they actually need and buy. Rising concerns about the overuse of resources through increased multiple ownership of products has led to a surge in alternative buying and consumption patterns.

Non-shopping

Non-shopping is becoming a quite popular phenomenon that appears in several forms. Most commonly, the so-called non-shoppers want to refrain from buying new clothes and garments in any form for at least a year.The goal of such initiatives is to become more conscious about how much we usually buy “on the way” and without necessarily needing any of these acquisitions. Non-shoppers can be found all across Europe, for example StopShop in Norway, Non Shoppers in Denmark, and Ich Kauf Nix in Austria. But however desirable this movement may be, it also calls into question how bad these non-shoppers’ shopping habits must have been for considering such drastic measures. Equally questionable is how long the effect of such initiatives last and how it affects consumption of other non-clothing products like, let’s say, personal care or household products. Not shopping clothes for a year but instead stuffing one’s apartment with lots of other things, or compensating the non-shopping in one year with more shopping in the following year does not sound quite as sustainable.

Free your stuff

In case some of us don’t necessarily want to put a full stop on buying ourselves, we might still want to think about those things that we already own. Indeed most of us tend to accumulate items that we never use, wear or even unpack, and that end up standing in a corner gathering dust while they could be of great use to someone else - one man’s trash, another man’s treasure. The Free Your Stuff movement advocates for a minimalist approach to life, stating that we own too much and that we should get rid of all that does not serve a particular purpose for us (anymore). In the popular blog’s own words: "Most stuff gets in the way of good stuff, like useful items and also Life“. In fact, owning less can free up time and space in our lives for much more fun and social activities.

While the essence of this movement may sound a bit minimalistic to some of us, the thought of freeing yourself from unnecessary items and nick-nacks has become quite popular and has led to a multitude of Facebook groups for regional Free Your Stuff initiatives, mostly from German cities, but also from Luxembourg, Denmark, Portugal, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. The commonality of all of these groups is their gifting mentality – no swaps, no money exchange, just pure giving (and taking, of course). While I am generally not a believer in the absolute good intentions and pure humbleness of people (i.e. I expect 80% of the people are trying to get a hold of free items so they can sell them on for a profit), it felt surprisingly good to give away that spare calendar to a girl who seemed genuinely happy about it.

Collaborative consumption – swapping, sharing, repairing

Another popular activity of sustainable consumption (permitted even for die-hard non-shoppers) is traditional swapping. By following the one in – one out principle, fewer resources are wasted and stuff is allocated more efficiently to those who actually need and use it. It further offers an opportunity for people with limited incomes to barter items for something that they need. Today, swapping is particularly common with clothes, and this not only through privately or publicly organized clothing swap parties, but also increasingly as a business model in the form of shops and online swapping platforms.

Many people are realizing that a lot of consumer goods do not necessarily need to be purchased or owned by every single individual. Cars are the archetypal example here, as car-sharing models proliferate all over Europe (successful models include for example car2go, Greenwheels, autolib’ and City Car Club). In the Germany and Austria it is common practice to get a lift with someone else in a car going from city A to city B via platforms such as mitfahrgelegenheit.de – a great and flexible way of increasing the passenger per car ratio and sharing (saving) fuel costs.

But cars are by far not the only shared objects. The internet has enabled several new forms of sharing, and numerous peer-to-peer marketplaces have popped up over the years in this regard. Websites like NeighborGoods, Zilok or StreetBank aim to provide community platforms for sharing, lending and borrowing various household appliances and tools, but their popularity in Europe is mostly restricted to the UK and France. However, new portals are also starting up in other countries, for example the recently established usetwice in Austria.

Particularly popular platforms are those concerned with accommodation. More and more people open their homes to strangers – either transaction-based (e.g. through airbnb or 9flats) or free of charge through specialized social networks such as Couchsurfing. A similar model exists for the sharing of services, skills and knowledge. Pages such as Skillshare or Uniiverse offer a platform for sharing a variety of skills and services for free or for charge. However, the line between commercial and non-commercial activities and offers is in many cases difficult to draw.

Make do and mend

Fixing things, and learning how to, has also come back into fashion. Repair cafés are popping up in the UK and the Netherlands and online communities like Instructables are increasingly popular for their wide range of step-by-step guides on how to fix, make and re-make things. This movement is fueled by growing frustration over the amount of waste created by our throwaway culture and a sudden re-discovery of how good it actually feels to fix and customize the things we already own.

What all these responsible consumption models show us is a generally more active approach to ownership or non-ownership. Making a well-founded decision about what to buy or not-buy, what to borrow from somebody else and what to give away or even repair, is unfortunately not something that can be taken for granted today. While it is true that consumer choices cannot “change the world” on their own (see article by Alison Singer in our last newsletter) without targeted government and business action, it is certainly an important starting point to begin thinking about our very own consumer choices. Furthermore, what we see is an immense potential for new and alternative, innovative business models that build on the sharing and redistribution of our planet’s existing resources rather than further exploitation.