From Amsterdam to Berlin, if you ever find yourself lost in a European metropolis, you have a pretty good chance of coming across a pink banner declaring that “we [Klarna] have nothing against the other banks who prefer blue - but we want to be a little different - because we are.” Through its bright campaign approach, Europe's biggest Buy-Now-Pay-Later provider has, quite literally, painted the town pink. This bold choice of color, often associated with clichéd consumerism, may, at first glance, seem to be contrasting with the rather stoic world of finance. However, it is this creative divergence that Klarna utilizes to establish itself as a modern innovator in the fintech sphere. Their presence, albeit controversial at times, challenges conventional notions of finance whilst, on a deeper level, offering valuable insights into the continuously shifting landscape of consumer debt dynamics.
Revolutionizing Finance: Klarna 101
Klarna, founded in 2005 by Swedish entrepreneurs Sebastian Siemiatkowski, Niklas Adalberth, and Victor Jacobsson, is an internationally operating financial technology company based in Sweden. Financial technology, often referred to as fintech, sums up a rapidly growing sector at the intersection of finance and digital innovation. Fintech companies generally utilize technology to provide a wide set of financial services, from payment processing to investment management and insurance. The growth of the sector is quite remarkable, with annual global investment in fintech companies at approximately 209 billion US dollars in 2022. Research shows that these companies tend to serve a diverse clientele, but are particularly appealing to younger, digitally-oriented users. Klarna, the fintech player in question, finds its niche in the realm of online shopping and payments. As a Buy-Now-Pay-Later (BNPL) service provider, Klarna integrates into e-commerce platforms, letting customers make purchases and choose flexible payment options. The company essentially enables customers to make immediate purchases and settle the payment later, typically with minimal or no fees and interest, thus offering a new way of deferring payments and splitting transactions. With 150 million users and over 450,000 retail partners, ranging from food delivery to fashion, the company has established itself as a leading BNPL provider.
Debating Debt: The Klarna Dilemma
In recent years, Klarna has become entangled in different controversies that all revolve around a common theme: the ethics of accumulating debt for the sake of consumption.
One notable example in this narrative is the viral emergence of Klarna debt horror stories on TikTok. The trend took shape in 2020 when influencers stepped onto the platform to share their personal battles with shopping addiction and the substantial debt they had incurred on Klarna—often totaling thousands of euros—in a simple quest for the latest fashion trends. These candid revelations corresponded with many, particularly young women, who were encouraged by this openness and started sharing their own experiences. The stories continue to pour in till this day, revealing that many individuals have accumulated four- and five-figure debts due to their shopping habits. 1
Another intriguing instance of public outrage occurred when Klarna announced its partnership with the meal delivery service Deliveroo in 2022. Many critics voiced their concerns about the ramifications of going into debt to afford everyday meals, especially against the backdrop of a rising cost-of-living crisis or, as Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis commented, “(...) borrowing should only be if NEEDED, for planned one-off budgeted purchase, not a cheeky Nando’s.” 2
Controversies like these show that the dimensions of Klarna's business model fuel public debate and scrutiny by raising questions about the boundaries of consumer debt accumulation, and the risks of innovating financial choices.
Historical Recap: Consumer Debt and Credit Card Culture
This story is by no means a recent development. Understanding the historical perspective on consumer debt can provide us with insight into its current manifestations, including the impact of BNPL companies like Klarna. Consumer debt has in fact undergone significant transformations throughout history, reflecting evolving societal and economic dynamics, such as the rise of new technologies.
Historically, and for much of human civilization up until the 20th century, individuals predominantly relied on informal borrowing practices and local moneylenders to address their financial needs. This practice evolved considerably over time, reflecting the socio-economic dynamics of the respective eras. For instance, in pre-modern societies, borrowing was usually an informal arrangement among local communities. People borrowed from family, friends, or local moneylenders who operated on a small scale. The terms of these loans were flexible and largely dictated by social norms rather than formal regulations.
During the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first signs of formal lending institutions began to appear. European cities saw the establishment of pawnshops and early forms of banking. These institutions marked a shift toward more structured lending practices, but they were still relatively limited in their reach, primarily serving the merchant class and aristocracy. As the world transitioned into the 18th and 19th centuries, local moneylenders, often unregulated, played an important role in providing credit to a broader segment of the population. These moneylenders operated on a regional scale and were sometimes the sole source of credit for individuals in rural areas.
The 20th century brought about significant transformations in the world of finance. The emergence of modern banking marked a shift from localized and informal lending to more standardized practices. The introduction of credit unions, savings and loan associations, and, most importantly, credit cards and consumer loans, further expanded the options available to borrowers. The widespread adoption of credit cards from the mid-20th century was crucial in shaping American financial culture. Credit cards, such as the BankAmericard (later known as Visa), were the ultimate American innovation and transformed the way Americans accessed credit, allowing them to make purchases on credit with unprecedented ease. In the mid-20th century, the average credit card debt in the United States was negligible. Yet, less than a century later, in 2023, Americans’ credit card debt stands at 1 trillion US dollars. 3
To provide some perspective on the sheer enormity of this situation: During the same period (1980-2009), credit card debt per household in the United States surged by 1,100%, while median household income saw a rather modest growth of 200%. 4
In essence, this formation of American credit card culture was arguably influenced by advertising and consumerism. Credit card companies ran marketing campaigns to foster the idea that the cards were not merely tools for financial convenience, but also gateways to a more enjoyable and prosperous lifestyle. Americans essentially gained significant purchasing capacity and access to a better lifestyle, but this access didn't result from any significant increase in earnings. Credit card culture began to shift the narrative; taking on debt became acceptable, even encouraged. All of a sudden, the idea that debt could be a means to achieve personal goals and aspirations gained traction. While this form of credit card culture was predominantly American, its influence reached a global scale. After all, American credit card companies expanded their reach internationally, introducing the cards and the associated culture to markets worldwide. This global influence can be seen in the widespread acceptance of credit cards today, although the American experience remains somewhat distinctive.
The Path Forward: An Outlook on the Future of Consumer Debt Culture
Connecting all this to historical contexts, our Klarna case study may be a good starting point for a reexamination of the fundamental discussions surrounding current notions on consumer debt. At its core, the controversies have essentially reignited a critical dialogue about what warrants taking on debt, especially in the context of BNPL. With the allure of instantaneous gratification and ultra-easy credit, these incidents compel us to ask questions about financial responsibility and, in examining Klarna within the larger framework of changing consumer debt dynamics, grant us insights into the evolving landscape of consumer debt, which feels increasingly reminiscent of 20th-century American credit card culture, only now operating on a more global scale.
The most challenging aspect of this development feels quite obvious. The ease with which individuals can accumulate significant debt raises questions about societal attitudes toward what modern personal financial management should look like. Unlike traditional loans or credit cards, BNPL services typically have more lenient credit requirements, often granting credit to younger individuals with limited or no prior credit history. This accessibility makes them attractive to a broader audience. However, this approach can potentially leave individuals vulnerable to excessive spending, as the viral examples illustrate. Several studies and reports have suggested that BNPL users may be at risk of overspending. For example, a 2020 study by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission found that 20% of BNPL customers missed payments, potentially indicating that they overextended themselves financially. 5
While the Klarna controversy has garnered significant attention, the underlying issues are not isolated to a single company or country. The global spread of BNPL services, including Afterpay, Affirm, and Zip Co, suggests that consumer debt dynamics are undergoing a fundamental shift. Unlike in prior historic examples, the initial appeal of these services extends beyond US borders, with statistics showing that, in 2022, eight out of the ten top global BNPL markets worldwide were in Europe. Thus, our financial landscape is consequently witnessing a surge in consumer debt, potentially echoing the 20th-century rise of American credit card culture.
Whilst these parallels warrant further research and observation, on a very basic level, the intensification of consumer debt culture, particularly within the realm of BNPL services, underscores a future need for strong regulatory frameworks. At its core, the unregulatedness of BNPL services has given rise to concerns such as overspending and the accumulation of unsustainable debt. Recent developments, including Klarna's proactive stance in calling for new regulatory frameworks, demonstrate the overarching understanding of the necessity for oversight. In this case, the call for regulation cannot be merely a matter of industry self-regulation, but must be a response to the very real risks that consumers face in an uncontrolled financial landscape.
Further, numerous studies have underscored the strong link between inadequate debt management and low levels of financial literacy, highlighting the pivotal role of financial education in this matter. For instance, a recent 2023 study by Istiqlaliyah Muflikhati delved into the influence of financial literacy on debt management among young families. Employing a linear regression analysis, the research came to the clear conclusion that “Financial literacy needs to be well owned in order to create good debt management behavior”. 6
So, generally speaking, informed consumers are better equipped to assess their financial situation, make responsible choices, and avoid the pitfalls of debt accumulation. As we increasingly turn to modern, accessible financial tools, it is more essential than ever to give consumers the knowledge and skills required to make responsible financial decisions.
Indeed, the journey is far from over. The real exploration probably extends beyond Klarna to encompass broader questions about responsible innovation, consumer choices, and the ethics of modern commerce. But, with our towns painted pink and the lines between convenience and excess blurring, Klarna's story serves as a great lens through which we can explore the ever-evolving historical evolution of consumer debt dynamics.