Thursday, March 01, 2007

How much are you driven by convenience?

Yesterday I discovered SwitchPlanet, a site for swapping CD's, DVD's and video games. The service is free, but with each swap, you are encouraged to donate money which will ultimately end up going to the four charities they currently support. Their mission statement revolves around reducing waste and lessening our impact on the environment.

This is just another example of the "reduce our impact" driven anti-consumer sentiment that has been slowly building. How soon (if ever) will the retail world feel the impact of this trend?

For example, just the other day, I was thinking about going to the store and buying a CD, and realized that it would be much more "efficient" to buy the mp3s even though they were the same price. Knowing that I would just make the CD into mp3s anyway, and probably never use it again, I thought of what is involved in bringing the CD to the shelf versus buying a digital file.

Think about it. The music already exists on a hard drive somewhere. But to make a CD, they have to create the actual CD, the case, the liner notes, and cellophane wrap. Then it's put in a bigger box with other CDs, put on a truck or plane, shipped to a store, and stocked. Then I have to drive to the store (more gas), and buy it. Then I'll get a receipt (if it's circuit city, it will be about a foot an a half long). Then I'll drive home, spend 10 minutes making it into mp3s and probably never use the CD again.

Compare that to the alternative.

Has eBay changed retailing? Do companies feel the hit of all the used items being sold? What if millions of people stopped buying things and traded instead? I've got tons of CD's, DVD's, video games, and books. I'm fairly sure I could stop buying them all-together and just trade with other people for the rest of time.

Provided I can wait. You wouldn't be able to get the "latest and greatest" this way, because instead of 1 million people buying the DVD set, maybe only 100,000 bought it, and then through trading, it slowly cycled through the rest of the people who want it.

What if the Zipcar model becomes more prevalent and people start using goods more efficiently. Why do we all need to own a car if each person only uses it 5% of the time?

It mostly boils down to convenience. People don't want to share cars, because it means extra planning, and times when you might want to go somewhere, but the car is gone. People don't want to wait for the paperback version, so they'll spend extra money (and use more resources) for the hardcover version.

For many people, reducing their impact on the environment is more important than convenience. It's showing up everywhere, but as These Come From Trees points out, even the most seemingly insignificant things can add up over time.

Our consumer culture is what creates such a strong American economy. Could this be changing? Even if 10% of the people started truly living the "reuse, reduce, recycle" model, it would be a huge hit to the economy. But think about it, money isn't real. It's just a piece of paper that represents something. Technically you can trade for anything you need. That's how they did it in the old days after all. Paper money exists for convenience.

Won't introducing all these little inconveniences into your life make you less happy? Only if reducing your impact doesn't.

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