By Jonathan Marshall
In 1955, Life magazine celebrated America’s postwar material abundance with a photo spread on the virtues of “Throwaway Living.” It showed a joyous family surrounded by a cascade of diapers, ash trays, garbage bags, table cloths and a myriad of other items whose disposability “cut down household chores.”
More than half a century later, “throwaway society” has become an epithet rather than a virtuous aspiration. With real incomes falling, all too many people cannot afford lives of such conspicuous waste. And even if they could, humanity cannot sustain a lifestyle built on “hyperconsumerism” without destroying our environment.
In place of the old buy-own-dispose paradigm, more and more consumers are instead renting or sharing goods and services only when they need them—using the latest advancements in social technology to eliminate the “friction” inherent in those transactions. In the process, they are saving money and helping to spare the environment.
The new trend toward sharing—or “collaborative consumption” as Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers termed it in a 2010 book—was heralded by Time magazine last year as one of “10 ideas that will change the world.” Leveraging Web technology and mobile applications, armies of entrepreneurs are accelerating this cultural shift.
Car rental agencies are nothing new, but dozens of new companies now promote “vehicle sharing”— hourly rentals of cars, scooters or bicycles (e.g. Zipcar, ScootNetworks)—and peer-to-peer car rentals or ridesharing by private car owners (Sidecar, Lyft, Wheelz, RelayRides, Zimride).
Tens of thousands of people now use the Web to rent out rooms or apartments through Airbnb and various vacation rental websites. They rent out office space (Deskwanted), storage space (Storemates), designer clothes (Girl Meets Dress), parking spaces (ParkatmyHouse), personal loans (Zopa) and a host of other services.
And even when people dispose of goods they own, they are much more apt to recycle them to new owners with help from Ebay and Craigslist.
A new study sponsored by Zipcar UK presents evidence that people (at least in the UK) aged 18 to 54 are nearly twice as open as their elders to renting or sharing goods and services for reasons of convenience, flexibility, cost, and environmental benefits. The study terms them the Pay as You Live Generation.
“Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and enabled by the latest technology, new models of consumption have now blossomed into serious contenders to the old ownership model,” says Mark Walker, General Manager of Zipcar UK. “I’m talking about fresh, collaborative models that we, as empowered, digitally-connected individuals find far more meaningful and relevant, not just because they’re smarter, cheaper and environmentally-sound, but because they’re attuned to the way we now aspire to live. These models enable us to access goods and services as and when we need them; releasing us from the burden of ownership.”
The new sharing or collaborative model makes more efficient use of otherwise idle and wasted assets—tangible goods, capital, space, and even time—by putting them on the market when they aren’t in use. It exploits technology to match lenders and borrowers more quickly and precisely than ever before.
Equally important, promoters of this model are making it work by finding new ways to build trust—for example, by posting online reviews of program participants. In fact, advocates claim, collaborative consumption builds community as it promotes sharing. “Of course there’s risk in sharing,” notes one blogger for Unstash.com. “However from my experience, every time that risk is honored, trust is built, relationships deepen, and we all live lighter freer lives as a result of sharing.”
Last but not least, notes Katie Fehrenbacher, a close student of new Web-based sharing ventures, the cultural shift toward collaborative consumption may be a necessary social response to a new era of constrained resources:
“So how do you provide energy, goods, water, and food for 9 billion people, who will concentrate in cities, on one planet, which isn’t getting any bigger any time soon,” she asks? “There’s going to be a lot more sharing involved. And we can thank the Internet — for the first time in history — for delivering a network that is far-reaching enough, low cost enough, and easily accessible enough, to facilitate that kind of sharing between strangers.”
Email Jonathan Marshall at email@example.com.