“No society before our own has made the disposability of everything and everyone its operating principle.” Such is the sad realization of the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. They say that a productive economy demands that consumption be a way of life. Consume more, always more. We’re in a crisis? Buy, buy and buy some more is the government’s prime directive: It’s the best way to boost the economy! No crisis, all is well? Advertisers whisper to us to go ahead, consume and enjoy: Life is good, treat yourself, you deserve it!
But as we consume more and more, a vicious cycle emerges: Production is fuelled by demand and because we need to get rid of the old to make way for the new, our dumps are overflowing. Either we will or our children will, but some day someone will have to pay to recycle all this. Inspired by the concept of voluntary simplicity, more and more people are now refusing to participate in this escalation of consumption. They are questioning the notion of personal success based on the acquisition of ‘things.’ They believe that it’s better to focus on being instead of focusing on things. We need to get our priorities straight!
The business world is not completely insensitive to this slowly but surely budding movement. This is substantiated by the appearance of new corporate strategies over the past few years; the idea of selling goods is being replaced with selling their use. This is referred to as a functional economy or a service economy. This substitution draws the company’s interest away from itself and to the interest of the collective: By leasing goods that it continues to own, the company mutualises its products to be used by several customers throughout the years. It will then seek to extend the life of its products, to make them more resilient, more durable, and easier to recycle.
Entrepreneurs have long integrated, at least in part, the notion of functional economy. For example, members of CUMA use equipment without owning it outright. However, this example remains imperfect since CUMA is not responsible for manufacturing the machinery and equipment it lends out. A better example would be Michelin, it offers businesses with extensive road vehicle fleets the possibility of overseeing their entire tire management process. This means tires are not sold, they are placed at the company’s disposal and invoiced according to distance covered. This encouraged Michelin to invest heavily in research and development to improve the overall quality of its products. Elis, a European company, is another good example. Specialized in the rental and upkeep of professional uniforms, Elis implemented a new business strategy that led it to buy back manufacturing businesses back along its initial laundering service because it wanted to design and create clothes that would last longer and allow them to rent them…. longer. Simple logic.
Now back to Stiegler. Note that the machine age began in the 19th century and economic development grew around the function of production, Stiegler further states that in the 20th century the function of consumption became the driving force of development, which allowed for the economy of scale necessary for research and innovation. However, he predicts that in the 21st century the function of contribution will become the driving force thanks to multiple collaborative technologies.
For me, the function of contribution that will characterize the 21st century is perfectly suited to the new concept of a functional economy: When working as a whole there is no need individuals to own everything. This function of contribution is a clear reflection of networks, industries, partnerships, and lateral relationships between businesses to exchange services, in short, an ideal environment for cooperatives. At least it is in theory. In practice, this remains to be seen, will cooperatives know how to take full advantage of the potential presented by collaborative technologies, those supported by information technology? The question deserves further examination.