What’s mine is yours - The rise of collaborative consumption

Simon Smart reviews What's mine is yours, and some major changes in the way we consume

I once left the house intent on buying a reel for a garden hose and returned with something resembling a carry case for an anti aircraft gun. “Even chicks need a cordless drill mate”, the sales assistant at the hardware store had suggested after hearing me describe the paltry contents of my tool kit. Sadly, that was enough to convince me to purchase a large ‘hammer drill’ that I’ve used about three times in the years since.

Had I been a part of what are being described as ‘intentional communities,’ I could instead have checked my phone app for the availability of the required implement, gone and borrowed it from a local tool lending facility, saving myself the embarrassment, the cost and the space in my garage. Not to mention the landfill that my reckless purchase will one day become, having been used for a total of about three minutes its whole life.

That such an exchange is now feasible is a small example of what Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers describe as Collaborative Consumption, a groundswell of social and economic change that is fundamentally to do with the sharing of resources.

In their book What’s Mine is Yours they describe a new way of how we consume and do business that they say is taking hold around the world and revolutionising the behaviour of consumers in positive directions.

Collaborative consumption describes the connections between everything from Ebay to community gardens to things like car sharing, music downloads and the bartering of my dentistry skills for your legal advice. It includes things like internet swapping sites, online reuse and recycling facilities, clothing and toy exchanges, sharing of workspaces, companies that connect travellers with locals, and online bartering networks. The list goes on.

“We are going back to pretty old market behaviours—swapping, trading, renting, bartering,” says Botsman. But [these things] are being reinvented through technology on a scale that had never been possible before.” The Internet is the key. It provides a platform to enable these actions to cross the line from idealism to convenient reality. The tool-sharing example above is actually possible and workable in many cities around the world now.

Sceptics might be tempted to dismiss this as a temporary fashion or a reaction to the GFC, or a fleeting fancy limited to southern California or Byron Bay, but it is happening on a massive scale and if Botsman and Rogers are right, it represents a seismic shift in how goods and resources are to be exchanged into the future. The good news, according to them, is that this is a ray of hope in getting us off the cycle of consume and waste that so impacts the environment and is ultimately unsustainable.

According to Botsman and Rogers, we are witnessing a shift in focus away from strict ownership to the sharing of resources. They quote New York Times journalist Mark Levine who says that Collaborative Consumption is the way of the future:

  “Sharing is to ownership what the ipod is to the eight track, what the solar panel is to the coal mine. Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern; owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward.”  

The book is notable for its optimism about where things are going. The authors initially paint a stark picture of the way our individualism and drive for material wealth has taken us. The great pacific garbage dump – a mass of rubbish the size of Texas that’s mostly made up of plastic bags sitting east of Hawaii and off the coast of Japan, is symbolic of this rampant consumption. The same can be said of the astonishing growth of self-storage facilities in the U.S. As families have shrunk, houses have grown bigger but still they don’t manage to contain all our stuff.

But change is in the air. More and more of us are waking up to the fact that all this acquisition has come at the cost of relationships with friends, family, neighbours and the planet. Collaborative consumption has several advantages. While it doesn’t require any obvious commitment to being green, environmental benefit is an important bi-product. Secondly, companies who are taking up the opportunities in this area are thriving, especially where they embrace creative design strategies that take into account the life cycle of all resources needed to create a service or product. Botsman and Rogers say the myth of a false choice between the environment or the economy is rapidly being dispelled.

Importantly, Collaborative Consumption provides connection. Social capital refers to things of relational value that can’t be measured by GDP and participation in collaborative lifestyles provides an avenue away from the hyper-individualism that has characterised our consumption in the last sixty years.

Sites like Etzy that link buyers with makers of handmade goods, and local farmers markets that have taken off in recent years provide an attractive antidote to the soul sapping nature of mass produced goods sold in sterile retail warehouses. There is something gratifying in chatting to the bloke who grew his avocados when handing over your cash. Proponents of Collaborative Consumption see such things as addressing our hunger for community.

There are some memorable examples mentioned in the book. Couchsurfing and AirBnB enable travellers not only to save on accommodation but also to have an authentic experience of interaction with locals. Montreal’s public bike sharing system makes for convenient commuting that’s also good for fitness and obviously does better on the carbon score. The stories of the linking of neighbours who share resources, rides to work, and even join forces to establish shared solar power and pizza ovens are inspiring. Ironically it’s the web that makes it easier for people to come together in this way, producing “extreme neighbourliness [that] is so old fashioned as to seem innovative.”

It might be that the proponents of Collaborative Consumption have a more positive view of human nature than is justified as they assess the motivations behind some of these new measures. It’s possible we’re on the cusp of a revolution but it’s hard to tell how far the wonders of the net will take us from our obsession with material goods and our selfish selves. Real community, of the type that we mostly need, is costly, and sometimes involves giving out in a way that offers no hope of getting something back. Much of what is described in What’s Mine is Yours, still feels transactional in nature.

But there’s no doubt that this is a refreshing vision of more positive and sustainable consumption that doesn’t involve large slabs of guilt or asceticism. It’s important that as a society we re-imagine ways of producing and consuming that don’t trash the planet. There is something noble and life-affirming in establishing connections between the goods and services we consume and the people who provide them. And wherever relationships can be nurtured and communities established, that has to be a positive step away from the hyper-individualism so characteristic of our culture. In as much as Collaborative Consumption achieves any of that, I’m all for it.

Simon Smart is a Director at the Centre for Public Christianity

This article originally appeared at ABC Unleashed