Ecocentricity Blog: Do I Smell Smoke?

Mar 27, 2018 9:30 AM ET

Maybe someday leasing will be the norm for durable goods. I hope so. It would be a big boost for environmentally friendly business practices, and I really don’t think people will mind the shift.


If you had 15 minutes to grab items from your home, load up your car, and drive away before your home burned down, what would you grab?

I bet many of us have considered some variation of this question. Maybe you have just a minute, or you can only take three items, or you are going to be stranded on a desert island and you get to bring one thing to remind you of home. They’re all basically the same question, geared towards determining what items a person treasures the most.

Until recently, I always considered these questions purely hypothetical. Then, about ten days ago, I met someone for whom they were strikingly real.

Chantel and I were vacationing in the Bay Area and met a lovely couple who live in Sonoma County, California. We asked about the wildfires that had hit the region last October and whether they had been forced to evacuate. In their case, they had four hours in the middle of the night to pack up everything and flee. Fortunately, their home survived, but when they returned, they placed their most valued objects in one place so that they could get out in a minute should they face fires like that again.
I feel like everyone answers these questions in nearly the same way. We take our important documents (birth certificates, social security cards, etc.), our wedding photos (or external hard drive, in our case), and our keepsakes. I don’t know anyone who says their furniture, cutlery, pillows, tennis shoes, or other durable goods, even though people tend to use those a lot more frequently than keepsakes. I get that, for many, it comes down to the fact that some things are more easily replaced than others. At a deeper level though, I think it’s because the only things we care about owning are those with an emotional component.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how people generally want the services that cars provide (mobility, primarily) rather than the cars themselves. Last week, I talked about extended producer responsibility laws requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for the end-of-life of their products. This week, I want to tie it all together by showing that rented or leased durable goods would be the far superior environmental option.
Two things happen when durable goods are leased instead of owned, and one thing doesn’t happen. Let’s start with the latter. When I lease something (whether a car, apartment, set of golf clubs, or otherwise), I don’t lose any beneficial use of the property. Simply put, I get to use the stuff whether I lease or own it.
Here’s what does happen. First, responsibility for the item’s end-of-life automatically shifts to the producer (who has never stopped owning the item). Chances are very good that the producer will be better equipped to properly dispose of toxins and extract valuable materials from the item than the average individual. That’s one environmental win.
Similarly, if the item is something that can be improved or upgraded, it is more likely to be designed for reuse when leased instead of owned. Consider cell phone manufacturers. If they were leasing their phones instead of selling them, I bet they would design them to be easily upgradeable. After use for a few years, when the leased phones came back, the most efficient cell phone manufacturers would be those who could simply upgrade a part or two and then re-lease it again to a new customer. The end result would be fewer phones manufactured, and so less extraction of the materials needed to make phones. Another environmental win.
Maybe someday leasing will be the norm for durable goods. I hope so. It would be a big boost for environmentally friendly business practices, and I really don’t think people will mind the shift. And heck, if we ever find our homes on fire (God forbid), we can just grab our keepsakes and go. All that stuff we leave behind will belong to someone else anyway! 
Valerie Bennett
Ray C. Anderson Foundation
+1 (770) 317-5858