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Collaborative Consumption

February 3, 2012

What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo RogersA few days ago I talked about politics and food choices: how deciding not to give your money to a company that may well be poisoning you, and instead supporting a healthy food economy, is a political act that empowers you to react against what you feel are harmful practices.  While that post was specifically about food, it should be obvious that this idea extends to everything you spend your money on.  When you purchase clothing will you buy new or second hand?  Will you purchase a local designer’s offerings or a sweatshop-made garment?  Will you purchase synthetic or natural fabrics and will those fabrics be organic or made from pesticide-laden crops?

The questions are complicated and there are no right answers, but making informed decisions that align to your sense of justice should at least be an option.  When information is hidden from the consumer and people feel like they have no choice (or in fact HAVE no choice), often we find ourselves supporting things we didn’t realize.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a perfect example of this.  There are no regulations for labeling foods containing GMOs in North America and a startling number of products contain them.  Anything containing corn or soy (high fructose corn syrup qualifies as corn) almost certainly contains GMOs and while they are consistently touted as “safe” for human consumption, they provide no benefit to the consumer and introduce a level of risk to the safety of the food chain.  GMO seeds are patented, and cross-pollination with non-patented seeds has resulted in lawsuits against unsuspecting farmers.  GMO crops are routinely sprayed with large doses of harmful chemical herbicides.   The corruption associated with the production and marketing of GMOs is reason enough to avoid them, and buying organic (the only way to ensure you aren’t supporting and ingesting GMOs) is a bold political statement indicating your support for a just and fair economy.

Okay, so that took a tangent that I hadn’t intended, but the point is that choice is important when it comes to consumption and sometimes it takes more effort to make a choice you feel good about than one you are at best indifferent about.  And today there are more choices than ever (which can be overwhelming, but that’s a different topic entirely) and more “non-traditional” choices that promote sharing and a decreased overall consumption-footprint.  For example, when I travel to Montreal, I almost always stay in a short-term rental apartment rather than a hotel.

Giving my money to an individual rather than a corporation and staying in a more energy efficient space where I can make my own meals and do laundry when I feel it appropriate is a more attractive alternative in my mind than staying in a hotel, which I see as an inconvenient, expensive, and wasteful option.  There are many people who see hotels as their only choice, but there are others who are increasingly becoming aware of and embracing the cost-effective model offered by vacation rentals.  One need only look at the success of website airbnb for an example.  While the big hotel corporations are of course trying to stamp out this business model, it is going strong in many vacation destinations and I will continue to support it.  This idea of lending out or borrowing items that go unused for a good portion of their lifetime is taking off in multiple consumer segments, including automobiles, tools, and gardening, and is related to swapping of items that are in good condition but no longer useful to the present owner, such as books, DVDs and clothing.

This way of consuming has actually emerged with a name, called “collaborative consumption”.   It stresses that the experience or results achieved by the use of an item is really what consumers want, so that’s what they should pay for.  They shouldn’t buy a car to have it sit in the garage the majority of the time, they should pay for the ability to get where they are going.  They shouldn’t buy a DVD to have it sit on a shelf for the rest of eternity, they should pay to watch a movie and then perhaps keep trading that movie for others indefinitely, only shelling out the money for the medium once.  Services like NetFlix that offer viewing of films for a subscription are also in this vein with the difference being that finding a swap partner is no longer required.

Collaborative Consumption’s benefits are numerous, including a decreased environmental footprint (less raw materials, less waste, less shipping), lower cost to the consumer, and in some cases, increased interactions among members of a community in the case of sharing land for the purposes of gardening.  It promotes an environment of trust and penalizes those who try to scam the system by not keeping up their end of a bargain.  This inspiring TED talk by Rachel Botsman explains the phenomenon and its benefits perfectly:

I have been practicing Collaborative Consumption unknowingly for some time now, buying and selling used or unwanted items on eBay, swapping makeup on Makeup Alley, finding homes for unwanted stuff through FreeCycle, attending clothing swaps, purchasing used books and CDs, subscribing to NetFlix.  I’m sure most people have participated in a swap or bought a used or “antique” item at some point, and the idea is not really all that novel.  What is novel is the change in perspective associated with embracing Collaborative Consumption as a philosophy.  It means moving away from owning and possessing, and moving toward experiencing and sharing; moving away from competition and greed, recognizing that these values are destructive.

Wouldn’t it be nice if connecting with people and sharing experiences were more important than having the most expensive car?  Think about the last movie you watched at home.  Do you think you would have enjoyed it any more or less if you watched it on a bigger or smaller television?  A more expensive or less expensive one?  What about the last book you read – would it have been better had it been printed on gold leaf?  I think not.  And I think we are all waking up to these facts at a time when we really need to.  Collaborative Consumption is easy, fun, and smart.  It is an opportunity to enrich your life and reduce your dependence on loans, corporations and the burden of possessions in general.  If nothing else, think about how much easier your next move would be.  😉

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