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Collaborative consumption: give a little, take a little

The collaborative consumption movement is yielding remarkable results for the environment, innovative business and people wanting to reconnect in their community, writes Regina Lane of our new economics program.

There’s nothing quite like getting behind the wheel of your first car.  The freedom to go where you like, when you like, is the ultimate step in becoming an independent adult.  And then you find yourself in peak hour traffic or forking out a small fortune in car repairs.  After that, the shine pretty quickly wears off.  

"Can you imagine when we reach a point where not owning a car becomes the ultimate luxury, the ultimate status symbol?" asks green guru Joel Makower.  

Nowadays, many people are realising that real independence comes when you outsource the ownership, but still enjoy full access to drive where you like, when you like.  As a member of Flexicar, I can vouch for the luxury of ‘clicking, swiping and driving’, and letting someone else take care of the parking permits and car repairs.  
Car sharing has become the poster child of a new movement that is changing not only what we consume, but also how we consume.

In What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers track the rapid explosion in traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting and swapping that is being made possible through network technologies and a growing global awareness that the planet can no longer sustain the way we live.

We are emerging from the ‘the trance of consumerism’, says Botsman and Rogers, a frenzied high that lasted the past half century, a period littered with tales of households in the UK averaging 25 electrical appliances, more televisions than people, and enough storage sheds across the US to shelter every American citizen. 

Collaborative consumption is a shining example of how we can meet our basic human needs, in ways that are both economically viable and environmentally friendly. In this new world, where access rivals ownership, we are reminded that we are citizens before we are consumers and, with that in mind, the whole community benefits.

We in Australia might wish we had more sense, but given that our carbon footprints have now outstripped the US, we’re not easily let off the hook.  Australians, we’re told, spend on average $10.8 billion every year on goods they do not use — more than the total government spending on universities and roads.  That’s an average of $1,250 for every household.  

Colloborative consumption is a good news for a generation who feel trapped in a consumer first, citizen second mentality and have grown weary of the fallacy that material wealth can buy happiness. This cultural shift from ‘generation me, to generation we’ is underpinned by a desire for simplicity in life — to understand and trust in the people and stories behind the products and services we buy.  

From where we park to how to we get around, to what we wear, to borrowing money, to how we dispose of used and unneeded goods, to sharing accommodation, to matching aspiring gardeners to with those with a spare patch, to sharing ideas to make the world a better place, people are employing the internet to offer creative alternatives to one-way consumer culture.  

What’s Mine Is Yours is full of the ‘aha’ moments of budding entrepreneurs who saw the irrationality and excess in our current system — like a washing machine in every home, driving to the shop to rent a DVD or getting rid of perfectly good items with no one to give them to — and turned sustainable solutions into lucrative business opportunities. In 2009, the American car sharing company, Zipcar, turned over $130 million dollars.

Collaborative consumption is also making micro-entrepreneurs out of ordinary people. Using the principle of ‘idling capacity’ resourceful folk harness the unused potential of items — such as a parking space, designer gown or spare bed — to both share their material wealth and make a quick buck.

Beyond its ease, convenience and cost effectiveness, collaborative consumption also appeals directly to our deeply ingrained desire for choice

Our consumer-centric culture was designed to create demand in the system, so that we would feel pressure to always keep up with the latest and greatest.  Zipcar have successfully tapped into our individualistic nature with their advertising "Today’s a BMW day.  Or is it a Volvo day?", proving  that that even the most self-interested consumer can still satisfy their material wants and needs — all while sharing resources and doing the right thing.

Sustainability is an inherent component of collaborative consumption.  If you need to share a car, you’ll think twice about whether or not you need it.  Every car share vehicle on the road replaces 7-8 privately-owned vehicles.  When items are shared multiple times, reused or resold, it means more use of products already in the market, and less need to create new ones, resulting in a much more sustainable form of commerce. By combining the principles of business efficiency and eco saving, we can make real and meaningful progress towards sustainability.

We first learn to share in the playground as children, and yet, somewhere in the passage to adulthood, we seemed to have forgotten that cooperation does not have to mean sacrificing our personal freedoms and choice.  

Find out more about our new economics program.

This article originally appeared in ACF's habitat Januray 2012 editionTo enjoy the full article and interactivity of our habitat download the app for iPad. Or become an ACF member to receive the habitat print edition and one free iPad edition.