Producers, Consumers, Prosumers: New Ways of Doing Business

Prosumption is as old as time. “Production for self-use” (Toffler 1980) is simply what many of our grandparents and great-grandparents did every day: growing their own food, making and mending their clothes and fixing what’s broken. After decades where production and consumption were firmly separated – in everyday life as much as in academic studies and theories – prosumption is making a comeback.

“Are you a prosumer?” was also the first question we asked the participants in our expert workshop that took place at the end of June 2018. It turns out that many of the participants were, indeed, prosumers. The workshop’s goal was to find out about the different value creation models of prosumption and to cluster those different models.

We found that the distinction between production and consumption does not reflect the manifold forms of value creation anymore. There are consumers who engage in production (e.g. community based agriculture or DIY), in marketing (bloggers), in food distribution and waste management (foodsharers) and in re- or upcycling (repair cafés). Consumers are engaging in every step of the supply chain.

In contrast to what generations before mass-consuption have done, these prosumption patterns are turning into distinct organisations, i.e. they are institutionalised at a local level (and beyond). Hence, they are changing the way not only of producing, but also of doing business in general. We were very excited about these findings, as they indicate a distinct shift in our economic thinking.

To understand what is happening in more detail, we conducted interviews with practitioners in the weeks after the workshop on each of the above mentioned prosumption models. Here are some of our findings:

  1. Prosumers want to create better and more sustainable lives for all. All people we interviewed were convinced that their activities – be it sewing a dress or cultivating vegetables – help make the world a bit more social and ecological.
  2. All of them were unsatisfied with our current economic system. All the overproduction, throwing away, exploiting workers and overstressing the ecological system bothered
  3. They enjoyed their activities and felt a new sense of social inclusiveness when engaging in community projects such as a repair café.

Here, we can see another difference to the prosumption activities of former times: rather than being a necessity, today’s prosumption is often chosen with a clear societal motivation. Through the interviews, we got a sense of prosumers’ values and core principles: a sense of community, social and ecological values, criticism of the current system, creativity, networking, and the need for a relationship with value creation processes.

While our sample consisted of people with different occupations, ages, and life circumstances who identified as prosumers, there are also serious limitations to the prosumption model at this time. The activities are often time consuming, sometimes they are also expensive, and there are legal hurdles that have to be dealt with. Companies might count on prosumers for taking over steps in the value-creation process for free.

Nevertheless, prosumption holds great value in changing our economic thinking. In the upcoming weeks, we will develop practicioner guidelines that will help involved actors – prosumers, companies, and consumer policy – to identify and to overcome those barriers.

For further questions, please contact Imke Schmidt.

Photo by Igor Peftiev on Unsplash