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Beyond Ownership: How borrowing can reduce our material footprint

Beyond Ownership: How borrowing can reduce our material footprint

Borrowing or renting is a core circular economy behaviour identified in our Behavioural Roadmap to Circular Consumption

We all remember a time where we were in the kitchen and out of a critical ingredient. What did we do? Knock on our neighbours door and ask to borrow a cup of sugar. We also recognise this in commercial contexts, where fax machines are leased to businesses or cars rented on a holiday. These behaviours, often done out of convenience or practicality, have greater environmental benefits that we can tap into and, when done on a much broader scale, have the ability to shift our material footprint.

Australians are consuming more than ever, contributing to a rapidly growing material footprint. Simple solutions underpinned by robust research and evidence are required to curb the consequences of these consumptive habits. Hence, a three-year program project led by Jennifer Macklin and Lena Jungbluth took place to determine what circular consumption behaviours are required to reduce Australia's material footprint and transition to a circular economy

A comprehensive behavioural systems map was developed, which takes the best parts of two recognised tools: behavioural mapping and systems thinking. In doing so, one can unpack the complex interdependencies that exist within a certain system. Looking through the lens of circularity, Jennifer applied behavioural systems mapping to identify the most influential behaviours that can transform Australia’s entire system of production and consumption. Eight core circular behaviours were identified; one of them was borrowing or renting.

Understanding ‘borrowing’ for organisations and individuals in the modern context

Jennifer defines ‘borrowing’ as “a consumer obtaining temporary possession of, or access to an item without any transfer of ownership, and with the express intention of returning / releasing the item back to its owner at a (usually specified) point in the future. Commercial ‘borrowing’ includes an underlying monetary exchange” - think of a lease on a car or real estate.

Rise of the shared economy

The rapid advancement of technology laid the foundation for the shared economy, where peer-to-peer based transfers of goods and services could be facilitated. Apps such as Car Next Door or AirBnB led the way in offering individuals intermittent access to goods or services that might otherwise be out of reach or unnecessary purchases. Fast forward to 2023, we’re now seeing a broader shift toward borrowing and renting behaviours, as sustainability becomes a global concern. This shift has seen the rise of platforms tailored to individuals (e.g. RNTR for clothing rental) along with organisations (e.g. Sprout coffee machine rental). Borrowing or rental behaviours present not only economic, convenience, accessibility and community benefits to the individual, but crucially, circumvent the need to produce another item thus reducing our material footprint. 

Benefits of borrowing or renting

When an individual opts to borrow over buy, it decreases the demand for new items. This pivotal shift extends the lifespan of an item by keeping it in circulation and reducing our collective overall material footprint. It’s important to note that in order to be effective, the behaviour must be performed as an alternative to buying a new item, rather than alongside. 

This behaviour can be actioned now—as opposed to another core circular behaviour: ‘built to last’, as it's not dependent on previous purchasing choices - which you can read about in our blog ‘built to last’. The act of borrowing often incentivises the user to take care of the product to avoid any financial penalties and therefore prolong its life. Shorter term borrowing - such as a rental of a dress for one event over buying it - also encourages consumers to make do without. There are also a plethora of organisational examples which are perhaps more common than borrowing among individuals. Familiar examples include hiring vehicles and office equipment such as computers. However, similarly to individual borrowing, it is limited to a narrow pool of product options. 

Barriers to borrowing or renting

Despite this clear shift, few products and services are represented in the borrowing or renting capacity. For the average individual consumer, this can be traced back to a lack of awareness on borrowing, ingrained purchasing habits, lack of opportunity and the perception that borrowing is second-class to buying. This is further exacerbated by the ease of buying new, along with the societal value associated with ownership. The promotion of borrowing and renting behaviour challenges the current dominant culture of individual ownership which coincides with consumption. 

Fostering borrowing or renting behaviour

As we strive for responsible consumption through the promotion of borrowing and renting behaviours, a structured approach is vital. The behavioural roadmap informs the following recommendations that enable and encourage both individual and organisational consumers to borrow or rent items

  1. Understand which product categories in the personal and organisational spheres can have greatest impact on material footprint if borrowed instead of bought new
  2. Define the key target ‘borrowing’ behaviours for both individual and organisational consumers respectively.
  3. Extend current knowledge of general borrowing barriers to the specific identified target behaviours
  4. Design and test tailored interventions to enable and encourage the key target behaviours, then implement as wide scale behaviour change initiatives.

Next steps for organisations

As for organisational consumers, the circular economy could see a faster adoption of these core behaviours through targeted behaviour change initiatives. This could be facilitated through collaborations with platforms like APSCE or ACE Hub. 

Read more about the Behavioural Roadmap to Circular Consumption

Written by Milly Graham

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