The future of ownership: reduce, reuse… rent out?

| 26th March 2018
Fat Lama website, cropped

Camera equipment, wood tools and drones are just some of the items you can hire through the Fat Lama platform. 

The Ecologist
The environment has provided a sink for our discarded commodities for generations - but today landfill and ocean plastics show this way of living is at crisis point. So can't we just borrow stuff we only need occasionally. Fat Lama is at the cutting edge - or bleeding edge - of the new sharing economy. SASHA DOVZHYK investigates

Fat Lama may, in theory, challenge our indiscriminate buying habits. The more we use the platform, the louder we complain about it, the better chance Fat Lama has of improving, not only their service, but our sustainable consumption too. 

Apocalypse is now. Growing up in the dystopian landscape of an industrial post-Soviet city, I used to repeat this phrase way too often for any listener past their Emo phase. Since climate change has become a household word, I identify with the boy who cried wolf: my paint-it-black vision fails to impress.

Everyone has acquired dystopian lenses of their own. What follows is this: the radical decrease in natural resources calls for a radical change in consumption patterns; and all unto whom the apocalyptic vision has been revealed are now responsible for reducing personal consumption in all forms. 

If such a call sounds grand enough to trigger your denial mechanisms, you’ll be happy to learn, as I was, about Fat Lama. This online platform allows renting and lending, instead of buying and piling up, stuff which you need, albeit rarely.

Liberal investment

Fat Lama lists hires available in the neighbourhood and connects borrowers with lenders. The charge is 15 percent of the total rental price. Fat Lama's apparent anti-consumerism, not to mention the review fee, was enough for me to subscribe apace. Or, to attempt to.

As it turns out, the relationship of Fat Lama with speed is problematic. For such a well-designed, well-meaning, – and what is our current euphemism for ‘hipster’? – platform, it is surprisingly ‘beta’ in performance.

To begin with, if you try to do almost anything beyond browsing or chatting with support from the phone app, it redirects you to the browser. The browser version, in turn, slows down your phone beyond endurance.

If you are likely to perceive lags as prompts to decelerate and reflect on the planet’s overheated state, consider also that the browser version abuses your mobile data and battery. Therefore, Tip No 1: explore Fat Lama from your desktop and, out of respect for your nervous system, don’t try opening multiple tabs simultaneously.

Tip No 2: prepare for a liberal investment of time and data. It only took an hour of my life, two phone chats, photos of my passport, UK visa, Met Police registration record, and student certificate, a selfie with my passport, and my institutional email address to sign up with Fat Lama.

Exploiting tech

Don’t get me wrong: the support team were nice and patient about the unconvincing stash of my documents. Nevertheless, I can’t but wonder: if I was, say, Iranian instead of Ukrainian, would they be asking for my biometrics as well? In any case, after having uploaded an equivalent of my DNA to a ‘secure third party, off-site, encrypted database’, which stores the IDs of Fat Lama users, I was motivated to take very good care of the lenders’ property. 

Now, to the property, or the exciting universe of stuff which Fat Lama opens up for you. Browsing the website is a worthy anthropological experience in itself. The more bizarre rentals I have discovered so far include heavily branded watches (some brand names are featured with the prefix ‘real’) and a weathered ‘Mannequin named Jane’, whose owner charmingly implores not to force Jane into ‘drowsy garms’.

Urban anthropology aside, Fat Lama seems to be a mecca for IT geeks, sound designers, film makers, and those on the partying side of life. DJ equipment galore mixed with professional cameras, drones, and fancy disco balls are well represented in the rental lists.

When a friend asked me to search for a ‘drain snake’, Fat Lama referred me to a ‘cocktail shaker’. The suggestion must tell you something about the platform's target audience and search algorithms. With the glitches becoming curiouser and curiouser, I was yet thrilled by the upcoming adventure in the world of stuff - and by promised discounts.

Tip No 3: watch your credits. While switching between desktop and phone versions and exploiting tech support, I lost my referral code from The Ecologist (£25). But, I found a Fat Lama promo code for neophytes: the £20 which all newcomers can use on their first hire.

An entire week

Excited, I sent an invite to my boyfriend as well, who received £25 credit for signing up through my link. I instructed him to go on with the first rental, for which my account was then credited with extra £25. As a result, I ended up with the sumptuous figure of £45 on my Fat Lama balance.

What happened next is a mystery, for when I started my first hire, the credit evaporated. Instead, my bank card was charged the full price. After two more chats with the support, helpful as ever, £45 was manually added back to my Fat Lama account. Although I normally reserve a certain amount of patience for all things beta but benign, this reserve began to dwindle. 

Hire No 1: Fujifilm Instax Mini Polaroid (£5.4/day).

Failthful to the millennial code, in selfies I trust. My personal history of migrations has intensified the generational preoccupation with pictures: as a substitute for my physical presence, I generously share my photo trash with distant family and friends. Thus, the first rental arranged by the boyfriend for the weekend of my thirtieth birthday was a mini Polaroid. It cost £13.14 for three days, but his bank card remained almost intact.

Except for the £1 minimum payment, the hire was covered by his Fat Lama credit. As far as the lender couldn’t organise the handover in time, we kept the camera for an entire week. With the extra £14 invested in twenty films, it was still good value for money. The sky-blue apparatus spitted tiny old-fashioned photo-cards which were afterwards posted to my home country. 

Hire No 2: Apple Watch (£7.2/day)

With the fancy £45 credit on my Fat Lama account, I decided to dare my economy-driven luddism and rent an Apple Watch. It should have also catered for my vanity: I wanted to carry around a handy proof of certifiably walking 9 miles per day. But it was not meant to be. After the owner of the Apple Watch rejected my request for the third time, I finally got the message.

Acceptance stage

Hire No 3: Kensington Presenter Clicker + Laser Pointer (£5/day)

Dispirited but not defeated, I resolved to fight my academic community’s collective luddism by borrowing a wireless PowerPoint clicker for a one-day conference. For me to pick it at a convenient place, the clicker's owner passed the rental through a friend who worked nearby. Such nicety can be life-changing when you are rushed off your feet organising a conference! The speakers appreciated the magical remote which allowed them to walk, gesticulate, and perform, nonchalantly forwarding the slides at the same time. For two days, I paid £9.05 from my Fat Lama credit, plus £1 operational fee.

Hire No 4: Amazon Tablet (£2/day; £10/week)

I have never had an e-book. I dreamt of reading from a luminous screen in bed. Spending my credit on finding out what it is all about seemed reasonable. So, I un-saw ‘AMAZON’ in capital letters in the product’s title and focused on the fact that someone was willing to share their wondrous device with me for peanuts.

The pick-up was more fun than expected. I wandered to an Islington apartment block after teaching an evening class in my evening university (which is to say it was late). In a dimly-lit, Gaspar-Noé-inspired setting, the owners simultaneously released a table and a tablet into two independent sets of hands. The lenders’ experience of Fat Lama would provide ample material for an amusing review. 

However, a short inspection of my prey made my mistake plain. I have no Amazon Prime account, which is prerequisite for the tablet’s full use. Downloading non-Amazon content suggests more trouble than I am prepared to undertake. Dear luddites out there: interacting with new technology is a part-time job.

Peer-to-peer exchange

Hire No 5: Mandolin (£10/day)

After a week of testing Fat Lama, I arrived at the acceptance stage: I am not a stuff person. I admit complete failure of imagination in the realm of rentable things. Luckily, my friends don’t suffer from the same affliction. Having explored the choice of sport equipment and musical instruments, one of them zoomed into an elegant mandolin.

The price of the deal was £19.05 from my credit plus £1 from card. To my relief, the lender didn't mind giving the instrument to a third person. Fat Lama insurance policy seems to work as an effective soothing factor. To my dismay, the friend got back to me after a day with additional feedback: the mandolin’s tuning pick was broken so it couldn't actually be properly tuned or played. Tip No 4: make sure your hire is in working condition.

Despite the irritating bugs and tremendous amount of spam you receive after registering at Fat Lama, their peer-to-peer exchange may, in theory, challenge our indiscriminate buying habits. The more we use the platform, the louder we complain about it, the better chance Fat Lama has of improving, not only their service, but our sustainable consumption too.

This Author

Sasha Dovzhyk is a PhD candidate in English and Humanities at Birkbeck School of Arts. She tweets at @sasha_weirdsley.

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