THE BLOG

Product Service Systems: One You Already Know and One You Need to Know About

09/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Collin Dunn Writer, TreeHugger.com and PlanetGreen.com

I'm a huge fan of the "Product Service System," better known to some as PSS. Though the name is easy to trip over, the concept is brilliant: rather than buying everything you need outright, you can essentially "lease" or "rent" a product, deriving benefit from its service but not retaining ownership. That way, when you're done with it, you can pass it along to someone else, or, in some cases, back to the place where you got it, so they can distribute it to someone else to use for a little while. Confused? Don't be; there are examples everywhere.

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Graham mentioned car-sharing as a great PSS, but there are lots more we can all use (and, in some cases, already do). One that's familiar to a lot of us is Netflix. The service-as-product (which now has competition from Blockbuster's rent by mail program, among others) is well known to millions of Americas: sign up; make a list; receive movies in the mail; enjoy; return by mail; repeat.

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Not only does it make movie-watching more convenient and cut back on the clutter of having to own all these DVDs, it's greener than trucking off to the video store every time you want to catch a flick. A recent study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concluded that even a two-mile drive to the video store will consume a few hundred times more energy than the Netflix delivery via mail from a distribution center 200 miles away. The authors run the numbers for a movie fan in Ann Arbor, Mich., concluding that renting online DVD rentals consumes about 33 percent less energy and emits 40 percent less CO2 than picking up those same movies at the traditional video store.

And Netflix isn't stopping there. Chief executive Reed Hastings, "We want to be integrated on every Internet-connected device, game system, high-definition DVD player and dedicated Internet set-top box. Eventually, as TVs have wireless connectivity built into them, we'll integrate right into the television." Pretty slick; while it's true that TiVo and other digital video recorders allow you to do this now, Netflix's proposed deal would leverage their huge catalog via the internet, allowing you to watch just about any movie your heart desires, any time. And you don't even have to go to the mailbox to get it.

This model easily extends to libraries, which essentially offer the same service with books (and many are now offering DVDs and CDs as well). There are also more specific services that use the web to offer a similar deal -- with the notable difference of being a paid service -- if your local library doesn't have the variety you desire; America's Bookshelf is one such place.

One way to use stuff without owning it all -- and one that you may not have heard about -- is Neighborrow. Founded on the premise that it's dumb to buy everything you need when you can just borrow it from your friends and neighbors when you need it, Neighborrow is part Freecycle, part Netflix and all product service system goodness. It allows you to pool your resources with your neighbors, and then borrow a food processor when you need one; when you're done, you just pass it back, and round and round we go.

Founded by Adam Berk in his New York City apartment, the site gives users the opportunity to both list what they're willing to share and what they're looking to use; you network with your neighbors to get 'em all done without having to resort to paying retail. Users are rated, so you know how reliable each one has been, and the site keeps track of where your stuff is, how long its been there, and when it's due back.

What other products can you turn into systems? Let me know your favorites in the comments section!