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Can Stuffstr become the Uber for stuff?

Recently, I wrote a post for GreenBiz where, among other things, I mused about the circular economy, touching on its generational aspects and also the notion that makers of things really don't have a good handle on what happens to their products in the post-purchase phase.

Coincidentally, shortly after the post appeared, I was asked to test a new data platform created by Seattle-based B corp Stuffstr that touched on these themes.

The experience brought me back to some work I was involved in roughly seven years ago when I was working on sustainability at Best Buy. It made me realize how little progress we've made in the intervening time. At the same time, I believe we're on the cusp of some fundamental, radical changes in societal consumption patterns that finally may tip the balance towards a more sustainable future.

First, the old stuff. Back in 2009, Best Buy, Yahoo! and Nike worked with Creative Commons to launch an experimental initiative called GreenXchange. The idea was to open up intellectual property in the name of sustainable innovation. At the time, we were engaged with the World Economic Forum on the issue of sustainable (actually, unsustainable) consumption, with a particular emphasis on closed loop systems. Nike was, and still is, a driving force in pushing for innovation in this area and it put its money and muscle behind a number of WEF initiatives, including GreenXchange.

The project got some nice press, but GreenXchange never completely fulfilled its promise. But looking back on it, that's not where the value was. The biggest benefit was in getting a fair number of companies together in the same room to talk about precompetitive approaches to sharing intellectual property. Some of our patent lawyers thought we were nuts. That was the fun part.

The topic that came up a lot was the need for robust, evolving data systems that would allow us to truly understand consumer behavior.

Regardless, it was the side conversations that I remember most distinctly, and the topic that came up a lot was the need for robust, evolving data systems that would allow us to truly understand consumer behavior.

Companies spend millions of dollars trying to understand what consumers do with their products. Manufacturers such as Apple, Microsoft and Sony may know more than most because many of their products don't work unless you have a relationship with them. The makers of electric toothbrushes, blenders, clothing, you name it — they're not so lucky. Most are flying pretty blind. It's a serious competitiveness issue because today's consumers aren't as loyal to brands as they used to be.

Cracking the code on how to keep them coming back has gotten much harder.

What happens to stuff?

The lack of post-purchase data is also a vexing problem for those of us interested in moving towards a truly circular economy. If you don't know what happens to stuff in the economy, good luck trying to get it back or figuring out how to make it work better and last longer.

That brings me back to Stuffstr. It's developed an app that lets you keep track of the things you’ve bought and get rid of them when you longer want them. Interestingly, it doesn't focus on selling stuff. The emphasis is on donating, recycling and giving things to friends. Basically, keeping things out of landfills whenever possible.

I showed it to people in coffee shops and to some of my students, and the reactions were all pretty similar and squared with other observations I've made about how people are thinking about material possessions these days: Making a buck off your old goods is nice, but relationships are nicer, especially if you have an emotional attachment to certain things.

Making a buck off your old goods is nice, but relationships are nicer, especially if you have an emotional attachment to certain things.

Two things happened when I started using the app. First, I was struck by how simple and easy to use it is. That was one of the big hurdles we couldn't overcome with GreenXchange. John Wilbanks, the brains behind GreenXchange at Creative Commons, said, "Making sharing simple is very complicated." He was right then, and it's still true today.

My second reaction came straight from the gut: This is how I felt the first time I used Uber. People had a lot of ways to get around before Uber, but it wasn't always easy, and you sure couldn't just press a button on an app to get a ride.

I also remember thinking that once they really got rolling, Uber would know more about how people got around than anyone else. That's the same kind of data we need on products to get to a fully circular economy.

Valley of death?

That said, many great startups have failed to survive the valley of death. Uber and Lyft easily could have failed, and still could do so if Elon Musk or established companies such as Ford take a significant bite out of the ride-sharing market. Stuffstr will need a large and active user community, which is not easy to do under any circumstance. Without the data that comes from that kind of scale, the circular economy benefits will be tough to achieve and we'll be back to where we were seven years ago.

And even though I like the simplicity of the app, I'd also like to see an ecommerce function that allows people to directly sell goods into a broader marketplace. Even so, that would open up yet another set of challenges, as there is no shortage of competitors in that space.

Like Uber back in the day, the Stuffstr concept will have to evolve and improve. Time will tell if it can be done, but based on what I've seen so far, I think Stuffstr has a pretty good shot. 

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