Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Freecycle - blurring the analyses of consumption

Guest blog by Sally Eden

Ever eBayed, Freecycled or Shpocked something that you owned but no longer needed? Millions of us have and the fact that the names of these websites/groups are now verbs indicates how common digital practices of selling or exchanging used goods online have become between consumers. I have been giving away and receiving consumer items for free through two of my local Freecycle groups for some years in my spare time. But after twenty years, on and off, of analysing sustainable consumption professionally, I grew more intrigued by whether there was more to Freecycling than avoiding landfill by passing stuff on to others, instead of taking it to the dump (as some Freecyclers like to describe what they do) and wrote a paper about it, which has now been published in the Journal of Consumer Culture.

Why analyse Freecycle? First, Freecyclers do a lot of ‘moral ordering’ in support of sustainable and ethical consumption. That is, their online posts re-value items, changing them from something unwanted by the owner to something useful for someone else. Someone might offer broken paving slabs for crazy paving, used bricks to make someone else a BBQ or even an old washing machine door taken not as a replacement part, but to make a dome-like window in a garden fence so that the new owner’s dog could peek out and see the world, a free alternative to the ‘PetPeek’ window sold online - thanks to Richard Lamin for telling me about that! Freecycling practices thus reimagine and reproduce both products and consumers in sometimes surprising ways.

Freecycling also exposes the problems with three common ‘binaries’ (that is, two-fold oppositions or assumptions) that underlie many analyses of consumption. First is the assumption that consumption is separate from production, whereas in Freecycling, the consumer also offers and describes items online, becoming a sort of producer and retailer. This is even more obvious when spare plants or food from an allotment glut is offered. George Ritzer and others have written about the blurring of consumption with production as ‘prosumption’ – to emphasise that these different practices cannot be easily teased apart – and examples also include a consumer reviewing a book that they have read on a retailer’s website that helps the retailer to sell more books or a consumer who blogs about cosmetic products on YouTube supported by commercial adverts.

Second, Freecycling merges digital and material practices. Often we hear about the rise of online consumption crushing the High Street and other ‘brick and mortar’ stores, but in reality these different spaces are linked. Freecycling uses online systems to connect offerer and receiver, but they usually meet in person to exchange the physical item, similar to the way that some stores now offer ‘Click and Collect’ mode for buying online but collecting in person. In other cases, people ‘window shop’ in bricks-and-mortar stores to choose an item by looking and perhaps trying it on, but ‘Windows shop’ online to compare prices and finally buy it – in some cases, Freecycling offers people the opportunity to try out a product (a breadmaker, a children’s slide) for free but perhaps in a well-used and rather battered form, before deciding to buy themselves one in mint condition.  

Third, Freecycling blurs what is often referred to as ‘alternative’ consumption with the mainstream. Some Freecyclers may feel that they are challenging the wastefulness and built-in obsolescence of mainstream consumer society, but others use Freecycle to ask precisely for desirable consumer items or, when offering them, use hotlinks to chainstore retailers to show what the product looks like when new (and often its original cost) as part of making it look attractive to potential collectors. Freecyclers still draw on the mainstream repertoire of modern consumption, even while aiming to counter the problems they perceive it produces.


For all these reasons, Freecycling shows us how consumption is more blurred, less analytically clean and more circular than is often appreciated. Consumption blurs into production, digital into material, alternative into mainstream, with diverse practices continually being reinvented as well. And it is fun. Now, who would like the tricycle that my son has now grown out of? And who is offering a bike that he might like? 

Eden, S., 2015. Blurring the boundaries: Prosumption, circularity and online sustainable consumption through Freecycle. Journal of Consumer Culture. 0(0) 1-21. DOI: 10.1177/1469540515586871

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