It Takes a Village: Can collaborative consumption change the way we shop?

By Ryan Egly

What is collaborative consumption? We learn in school that sharing is a virtue, and that it is best practiced with pencils, glue, and maybe a homemade treat in our lunchbox. But what if this simple concept were extended to much of what we own? Take a look around your house or apartment. How much of what you see is used regularly or even a second time? It is likely that your neighbor is in the same predicament, and that both of you could benefit if you only knew what was needed/available. This is the essence of collaborative consumption, a trend that is sweeping the globe and offers an alternative to the customary “accumulate and hoard” model.

In an interview with Greentech Media, Laura Anderson of Collaborative Lab claims collaborative consumption could lead to the most significant shift in the global economy since the industrial revolution. Anderson serves as the Innovation Director at the company, which is a leading advocate of the idea.

One example provided by the group is home power tools. About half of U.S. households own an electric power drill that is used between 6 and 13 minutes in its lifetime. Power tools is but one of many categories especially well suited for collaborative consumption. Let’s take a look at how the concept works, and how everyone can benefit.

collaborative consumption share

Photo: Carlos Maya

Sharing has traditionally been restricted to trusted family and friends, for obvious reasons. Loaning to a complete stranger is a sure way to, sooner or later, lose the device. Technology and online platforms have changed the game. It is now possible to collaborate with anyone, anywhere, and at any time, although the system works best in a local context. The first concern is for the well-being of the items in question. Profiles on online platforms allow reliable users to develop a solid reputation, which is key to guaranteeing smooth transactions. Just as with trusted sellers on Amazon or Ebay, you can find trusted sharers, swappers, and renters, complete with feedback.

A Few of the Most Popular Collaborative Consumption Companies

Below are some popular collaborative consumption/swapping/borrowing/renting sites:

  1. (formerly SwapTree) – I just created an account here. There are many media items – books, dvds, etc. – available, and it’s free. This is useful for permanent swaps.
  2. – self explanatory.
  3. – a great car-sharing service, but it is difficult to implement in suburban areas, given the low population density, lack of urban planning, and low access to mass transit.
  4. – mostly for money sales, but sellers might be open to a trade offer.
  5. – a site that allows renting of pretty much anything.
  6. The North Portland Tool Library – by providing residents of North Portland free memberships to borrow tools, they are a great model to follow.
  7. – okay for item rental, service fee of $.50 + %7 of rental price, option for deposit security.

A shift in how we consume will not only benefit the environment, but also the pocket book. Imagine 20 households were able to collaboratively own the drill in the example above, and that a drill kit costs $100. That’s $1,900 that 20 households have saved, and 19 drill sets that have not required plastic, metal, and fabrication/shipping from Asia. The person that did buy the drill will not have to buy the tiller or hedge trimmer that another neighbor owns. A vital, active sharing community could save several thousand dollars a year each for the participants. The sky, as they say, is the limit when it comes to this emerging barter economy.

Still, there are signs of a collaborative consumption lifestyle, even in the least likely of places. In Murfreesboro, a medium-sized suburb of Nashville, Linebaugh Library Vice President Raina van Setter is an active media swapper and recommends for its ease of use and popularity, especially for content not available at the library. Some other sites require the accumulation of swapping credit, which can be more trouble than it is worth. An attractive feature of the site is school wish lists. For the price of postage, an individual can help an aspiring reader. The library book store can also be seen as a form of collaborative consumption. Books are donated from the public and sold at fairly low prices, the earnings from which are used directly by the library for books, programs, and for the new energy efficient lighting at branch locations.

Trading of non-media items (a fancy way to say they can’t be shipped) works best in areas with a high population density, which is a rare find in the suburbs. Suburbs, with their high wealth and low population density, are a key culprit in the trend towards isolation and accumulation. Real estate sales do well, home builders do well, car companies do well, and retailers do well, all at the expense of the community and the environment.

To get around this, suburban dwellers have to trade smart and adapt the concept to our particular circumstances. No one wants to drive 30 minutes to borrow a drill and then return it again the next day. If you were renting your drill for $4 a day, $4 might not cover the expense of the pickup. One option could be to create a common tool shed for 20 or so neighbors, with one volunteer in charge of checkouts. This idea could actually work well for an entire neighborhood. Another option is to organize with neighbors or members of groups that meet regularly, such as religious groups. Items could be swapped at the regular meetings, which avoids the necessity of a home pick up.

Trading instead of buying new relates to sustainability in a big way. For all the talk of the hottest green technology and development, often the “greenest” device is the one that isn’t manufactured, because people are using their old stuff longer. For a great video on how consumer goods are the direct cause of a host of environmental issues and social inequality, invite friends over to watch The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. I remember being both inspired and disturbed as I first watched that 21 minute clip on YouTube.

I’d wager that you won’t be able to stop, and will go on to watch her other paradigm-shattering videos on the electronics industry, cosmetics, bottled water, cap and trade, and more. Another glimpse into the intense resource use demanded by commonplace goods can be seen in any of the interviews with Thomas Thwaites, the British student who made his own toaster from scratch (really from scratch: he procured and manufactured his own iron, copper, plastic, and mica). He’s a bit quirky, in a good way, so the interviews are never boring.

Collaborative consumption could eventually transition into a collaborative lifestyle, which offers a much needed solution to the present and future environmental crisis, as well as a way to strengthen local communities during a difficult economy. When the great blizzard of January 2009 hit Louisville, my apartment was without power for 10 days. An amazing thing happened. I lived not far off of Bardstown Road, a prime location for coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, and local book stores, which had power soon before the densely-packed residential area surrounding it. The frozen street was alive with heavily-clothed pedestrians making paths through the thick blanket of snow. The blue flickering of the TV was temporarily extinguished from home windows and people were talking with one another. For a short period of time, I had a glimpse of what it felt like to live in a neighborhood that communicates and organizes for common benefit. Collaborative consumption offers a real opportunity to bring communities together in a similar way, and perhaps save quite a bit of money in the bargain.

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