Usership Saves the World

By Tien Tzuo November 22, 2019

In the fire department of Livermore, California, there is a light bulb that has been burning since 1901. Yes, that’s over 100 years that the lightbulb has continued to work. It was manufactured in Ohio in the 1890s by the Shelby Electric Company, and there are apparently several other working models just like it. It is almost never turned off, and is on right now as I write. I know this because I just checked the webcam.

Now, for those of us that have changed a light bulb in the last few months (or just put up with darker rooms — you know who you are), the obvious question is: why don’t all lightbulbs burn for 100 years? Is it because back in the good old days we used to make things that were built to last? is it because today we live in a disposable world where practically everything we buy has been engineered to fail exactly one week after its warranty expires? Is it because some business guru came up with the “strategy” of planned obsolescence?

Yes and no.

It’s true that back when light bulbs were relatively new, they were manufactured for longevity. Companies used to try to outdo each other over how long their light bulbs could last. But they had a very good reason for doing so — they were selling to electric companies, not regular consumers.

In the late nineteenth century, customers would purchase electricity from regional providers who would handle all the installation and maintenance. If a filament in a light bulb burned out, you would call the company and they would send a repairman to fix it.

“In the 1880s, if you had an electric system installed, whether it was a business or a residence, the manufacturer took care of everything,” historian John Jenkins told Collector’s Weekly. “Charging separately for lamps didn’t come until a little bit later.”

In order to maximize their profits, the electric companies made sure that those light bulbs lasted as long as possible. They didn’t do this because they were particularly interested in environmentalism or sustainability or even customer satisfaction — they did it to make money.

That all ended, of course, once the companies started selling light bulbs directly to poor saps like us. Some smart, greedy people figured out how to engineer light bulbs to fail sooner so that we would buy them more often. The 1920s was a very dangerous decade to be a light bulb. Their life spans dropped from around 2,500 hours to around 1,000 hours. And thus the era of planned obsolescence was born.

Fortunately, that’s all coming to an end now. We’re not owners anymore, we’re users. We’re not as interested in buying light bulbs, as we are subscribing to light. Which means it is economically imperative that the companies we work with build and maintain sustainable and efficient products.

Why? Because they own the products now, not us. It’s like the 1880’s all over again!

When companies turn from product vendors into service providers, all sorts of innovation and investment starts happening with regards to sustainability and efficiency. Take a look at the shift to the cloud — there wasn’t much environmental efficiency happening when thousands of companies owned thousands of server rooms. But once Amazon and Google started owning their own server farms, then all sorts of efficiencies of scale started happening. It practically became a PR effort for these companies to show off how smart and environmental they were.

Usership is saving the world by making companies think smarter about how they build and maintain things. Why? Because in the usership model, manufacturers — not consumers — will now be responsible for maintaining and re-purposing the equipment that they produce. We’ll only be using that equipment when and where we need it.

Let’s take a look at some other examples of how usership is helping to save the planet:

  • Rent the Runway notes that the average woman throws away 82 pounds of clothing a year. By renting items that are usually own a few times a year, their customers are helping the fashion industry become vastly more sustainable and efficient.
  • Ikea’s new furniture subscription program is an integral part of their effort to become climate-positive by 2030 by “offering services that make it easier for people to bring home, care for and pass on products.”
  • Volvo wants half of its cars to be sold on a subscription basis by 2025, which means that the company is essentially transforming itself into a fleet rental service. Of course, that also means it will be responsible for building and maintaining cars that last as long and as efficiently as possible.
  • Loblaw, a major Canadian supermarket chain that has recently launched a subscription program that includes delivery services, has committed itself to reusable packaging materials in order to save money, as well as our planet.
  • Husqvarna, a major Swedish manufacturer, has experimented with consumer services that let people rent heavy gardening equipment by the hour or the day, maximising consumption per device and de-cluttering our garages in the process.

Let me repeat — these aren’t just good faith efforts at corporate environmentalism! In the Subscription Economy, if manufacturers don’t manage their products efficiently and sustainably, they will lose out to the competition. It’s that simple. Is it any wonder why Forbes calls subscriptions “the next frontier in environmental sustainability”?

Also, that light bulb in Livermore is apparently on its third webcam.


For more insights from Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo, sign up to receive the Subscribed Weekly here. The opinions expressed in the Subscribed Weekly are his own, not those of the company. The companies mentioned in this newsletter are not necessarily Zuora customers.

And check out his book SUBSCRIBED: Why the Subscription Model Will be Your Company’s Future – and What to Do About It.