Every time there’s an economic downturn there’ll be some (older) relative to tell you all about how when they were a kid their grandma used to darn their socks, they couldn’t just go to the nearest Big W to buy another five pairs for $7.99. Depending on the state of our collective finances, Western society as a whole seems to veer between the ostentatious exhibition of riches and visible thrift as a mark of respect for the Earth and the impoverished.
But thrift has more uses than just saving money. To understand how, think of the power drill in your garage. Throughout the years you own it, the average household electric drill will be in use for a total 12 or 13 minutes. According to the logic you want the hole, not the drill. So what if just one out of every 10 people went to Bunnings to buy a drill and everyone else borrowed or rented it when they needed one, saving time, space in garages and expense (because everyone knows you can’t walk out of Bunnings with only a drill).
Welcome to the world of collaborative consumption, a movement identified and championed by Harvard and Oxford graduate Rachel Botsman, who writes, speaks and consults about it. Collaborative consumption is just what it sounds like, the practice of spreading the ‘consumption footprint’ by sharing not just products but all number of aspects of modern life, most of it enabled by technology. Before the immediacy and connectivity of the web and mobile networks, the alternative to owning a car was hiring one for the day. Now it’s possible in many cities of the world to grab a car from your rental service for just a single trip, locking and forgetting all about it when you get there.
But extrapolate ten people using one drill instead of buying a drill each. Won’t that spell doom for the capitalist economy, collaborative consumption a victim of its own success? “I get asked a lot whether I’m going to kill jobs,” laughs the effusive Brit-born Sydneysider when The West suggested it, “But I consider things like the Kindle to be collaborative consumption so there’s a whole new wealth of ventures and job creation starting to emerge.”
Botsman calls out our hyper-consumptive culture for particular criticism in her book What’s Mine Is Yours, but it’s not just a rant about saving the environment even if there are some sobering facts involved. In just one, it’s been calculated that an end product contains only 5 percent of the materials used to produce it. In another, an environmentalist estimated that for every kilogram of product society manufactures, we generate 32kg of waste.
For that reason alone collaborative consumption makes as much environmental as financial sense. Instead of throwing out a perfectly good lounge that would be perfect for someone you don’t even know, a website like Freecycle.com brings you together. But don’t make the mistake of thinking Botsman wants to turn the world into a commune — in What’s Mine Is Yours she writes ‘the people participating in collaborative consumption aren’t Pollyannaish do-gooders and still very much believe in the principles of capitalist markets and self interest’.
“I don’t think the old consumer model of retail goods is going away any time soon,” she assures us. “There are certain things we want to own for the instant gratification. But I think over the next ten years we’re going to see products made for longevity versus obsolescence.”
Botsman also believe we (and that includes retailers, not just hemp-shirted hippies) will also move from a purely make-and-sell model to what she calls a ‘units of usage’ model, and they’re already discovering it can be more profitable than selling products with a lot of ‘idling capacity’. In fact she suggests we add a further R to reduce, reuse, recycle and repair — redistribute.
In fact it’s a sales model that’s already mainstream and very much proven. We never really wanted hundreds of black plastic videotapes or silver CD platters lying around, we wanted the experience of watching the movie or listening to the music, and streaming them over paid services to digital devices eliminates a lot of waste, handling and inconvenience. In fact many people still contend the near-collapse of the music industry because of digital piracy was never about getting out of paying, it was about the convenience — despite the continued ubiquity of pirated music paid services like the iTunes store thrive.
As to why collaborative consumption has taken off in so many forms and so many corners of our financial and social lives, Botsman raises a very good point. We’ve had two centuries of capitalism, living under seemingly unshakable notions about private property and ownership. But before that we had 100,000 years where sharing and collaborating on resources was a matter of survival.
“Behaviours like sharing, collaboration and a sense of belonging are fundamental human desires,” she says. “Individualistic consumerism was invented and really forced upon us. All that’s happened over the last ten years is technology’s enabled these behaviours in ways and on a scale we’ve never seen before. So many of them are old ideas but they’re making a massive comeback because they’re scalable.”
Maybe the most important aspect of collaborative consumption is that it isn’t just about money at all. Zeitgeist-ready terms you’ve already heard like crowd sourcing are enabling a whole raft of social changes and projects throughout the world. In 2008 a cleanup program called Let’s Do It took place in Estonia, where over 700 people traveled the country taking mobile phone photos of illegally dumped rubbish. A virtual map was made and on May 3rd 50,000 people turned up with shovels and plastic bags to remove it all. Estimates later said it would have taken the government three years and 225 million euros to do the same.
If the idea of getting rid of ill-fitting furniture, borrowing or swapping books, sleeping on strangers’ couches on holiday or getting a personal loan from a huge number of unnamed microlenders just like you seems all too daunting, Botsman advises that the best way to become a collaborative consumer is to look at your particular needs.
“I always tell people to pick something that serves their self interest, and they’re always surprised by how easy it is. If you start with a pile of books you decide to give away or sell you become very aware of the assets you have around you and that’s how your awareness starts to shift. I resisted giving people who participate in collaborative consumption a name like ‘yuppies’ or some equivalent. Everyone can participate in some way.”
What’s Mine Is Yours is out now
Borrow money from peers at half the interest of a bank loan.
Get rid of unwanted stuff to someone who needs it instead of landfill.
Stay anywhere in the world with locals for as little or long as you like.
Join up, reserve a car for your trip, pick it up near home or work, go where you need, park it and leave it.
Just like Zipcar, but Australia-based.
If We Ran the World
Recruit followers, benefactors or collaborators to any cause you can think of.