Collaborative Consumption: The End of Consumerism?


From The Guardian – June 14, 2011

by Leo Hickman

In November 2008, a 34-year-old security guard called Jdimytai
Damour was trampled to death at a Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, New
York, by what local papers described as an “out-of-control” mob of 2,000
“frenzied” shoppers who had queued overnight in the promise of a
slash-price sale. With the crowd outside chanting, “Push the doors in”,
staff climbed on to vending machines to escape the resulting stampede.
Even when police later declared that the shop was closed because it was
now a crime scene, angry shoppers remonstrated with officers. One
yelled: “I’ve been queuing since yesterday morning.” The bargains on
offer included a 50-in plasma HDTV priced at $798.

Rachel Botsman,
a “social innovator” who has presented her ideas at Downing Street and
before Microsoft and Google executives, retells the event in her book,
What’s Mine Is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way
We Live. “It’s a sad and chilling metaphor for our culture at large – a
crowd of exhausted consumers knocking down the doors and ploughing down
people simply to buy more stuff.”

Botsman rails in the book
against the excesses, futility and contradictions of mass consumption,
but she doesn’t rehash the usual tropes of anti-consumerism. Rather,
her book is a cry for us to consume “smarter” by moving away from the
outdated concept of outright ownership – and the lust to own – towards
one where we share, barter, rent and swap assets that include not just
consumables, but also our “time and space”.

The notion of
“collaborative consumption” is not, she notes, new – it has been around
for centuries. But the arrival of internet-enabled social networking,
coupled with “geo-located” smart phones, has super-charged a concept
that was already rapidly gaining primacy owing to the twin pressures of
our environmental and economic crises. Echoing the Japanese concept of muda
– the relentless hunt for, and eradication of, inefficiencies in any
system – collaborative consumption aims to exploit previously ignored or
unnoticed value in all our assets by both eliminating waste and
generating demand for goods and services that are otherwise “idling”.

uses the example of motoring to show where collaborative consumption
already makes sense. “Cars are 90% under-utilised by their owners,” she
tells me from her home in Australia. “And 70% of journeys are solo
rides. So we now see car club companies such as Streetcar
proving very popular in cities. In Munich, BMW now has a scheme where
it lets members pay for a car by the minute rather than by the hour. And
websites such as
are allowing people to make money from unused space outside their
properties. A great example is a church in Islington, London, which was
facing financial trouble. But it started renting parking space out front
and it now makes £70,000 a year from doing so.”

If the internet
and social networking act as lubricants for collaborative consumption,
then trust is the glue that binds it together. None of this would work
if we didn’t have faith that the invariably anonymous person at the
other end of the transaction will do what they promise; namely, pay for
your goods or services, or deliver what they have advertised.

interesting things are happening with trust at the moment,” says
Botsman. “We don’t trust centralised monopolies, but we do trust
decentralised systems. So we see peer-to-peer money-lending sites such
as Zopa proving
popular, in stark comparison to banks. ‘Trust circles’ are being built
online for things such as skill-sharing, space rental and task-running.
eBay has shown us that trust-based transactions work online. The US is
about 18 months ahead of the UK at the moment with all this, but sites
such as TaskRabbit and Hey, Neighbor! are redefining what a neighbour is.”

of Botsman’s most radical ideas is that the rise of collaborative
consumption in coming years will see the advent of “reputation banks”.
In her book, she writes: “Now with the web we leave a reputation trail.
With every seller we rate; spammer we flag; comment we leave; idea,
comment, video or photo we post; peer we review, we leave a cumulative
record of how well we collaborate and if we can be trusted.”

Botsman argues, our reputation rating will be as, if not more,
important than our credit rating. “It is only a matter of time before
there is some form of network that aggregates your reputation capital
across multiple forms of collaborative consumption. We’ll be able to
perform a Google-like search to see a complete picture of how people
behave and the degree to which they can be trusted, whether it’s around
products they swap and trade or money they lend or borrow or land or
cars they share.”

Botsman’s advice for anyone considering diving
into the world of collaborative consumption is to begin by drawing up an
inventory of your assets.
estimates that the average UK home has nearly £600 worth of unused
items – old gadgets, books, clothes etc – collecting dust. But Botsman
says to think more laterally: consider the spare storage space you might
have under the stairs or in a garage; the electric drill you could rent
to neighbours; your unique skills – dog-walking, accountancy,
shelf-fitting – you could hire by the hour, or exchange for someone
else’s skill.

Like many people, I’ve dabbled with some of these
concepts before. I’ve flogged unwanted items on eBay. I’ve signed up to
lift-sharing websites and joined a car club. I’ve looked into how TimeBank
works. I enjoy eking out extra value from my “idling assets”, but I
also hate waste so relish any opportunity to see a resource fully

But critical mass seems to be just as an important an
ingredient to collaborative consumption as trust and the connectivity of
the internet. If there aren’t enough people “out there” offering or
demanding these goods and services, then these systems quickly wither.
“Yes, you’ve got to have critical mass for this to work,” says Botsman.
“Not just geographical, but across subject categories.”

So, to stress-test the hypothesis of collaborative consumption myself, I trialled three popular examples.

Clothes ‘swishing’

last year, Anna Dalziel, an HR executive from Truro in Cornwall,
decided to channel her “addiction” for car-boot sales and eBay into a
public-spirited hobby. She approached the owners of a cafe in a
converted grammar school in Redruth and asked if she could host a
clothes-swapping “swish” in one of the school’s disused corridors. She
now holds weekly events across west Cornwall and has attracted nearly
600 attendees.

“Sometimes it can get a bit scary,” says Dalziel
ominously, as I arrive clutching a bag containing a skirt my wife has
sent me to swap “for something nice”. (No pressure, then.) “It’s often a
case of having to sharpen your elbows if you really want something.”

rules vary according to the organiser, but Dalziel operates a system
whereby women (I am very much the lone male) earn a single swap credit
for every item they bring with them. Some other swishes sort clothes
into higher and lower value piles, with, for example, a designer label
item being worth 10 credits compared to a single-credit Topshop top. To
pay for the time it takes to do all this sorting, organisers charge up
to £20 at the door. However, Dalziel just charges £3 to cover her costs –
fuel and venue hire – and operates a strict all-items-are-equal rule.

racks marked with sizes have been lined up along a corridor. Around 15
people are waiting in the adjacent cafe for “kick-off”. Dalziel says
it’s normally double that, but the rain might have kept people at home.

the women stream in, I stand back. “Many women treat swishing like a
clothes library,” says Dalziel, as she takes the entrance fee. “You
sometimes see the same items rotating week to week. Some people come
before they go on holiday just to stock up and I know some women who
have swapped around 500 items over the past year. I think people find
they have less commitment to an item than if they had bought it so have
an attitude that they can just bring it back next week.”

I finally
go to the clothes racks and tentatively let my fingers walk along the
hangers. I don’t know what I’m looking for and Dalziel kindly realises
this so comes over and holds up some brand new bikinis. I just take one
to avoid any further awkwardness. The inevitable questions from my wife
about why I’ve come home with a bikini await.

“Facebook has been
brilliant for us,” says Dalziel. “I just announce to everyone who has
signed up when the next event is and it goes from there. The most we’ve
ever had is about 90 people at an event we held at Penryn which attracts
lots of students. That got a bit scary, but I would say 30-40 people is
the ideal number. After each swish I sort through the remaining clothes
and sort a pile for the charity shop or recycling. The rest I store at
home and take to the next event. Some people treat us a bit like a
charity shop and then want lots of credits. But that’s not how it works,
so we have a ban on things like underwear. I don’t do this to sort
through women’s old bras.”

I’m curious to know whether she thinks a
male-orientated swish would work. “I don’t think so really. We did try a
kids swish once thinking parents would like to swap toys, baby
accessories and clothes. But it just didn’t take off for some reason. It
was also much harder to organise and manage the stock. And I’m just not
sure whether, say, a tool swap for men would work as well. I sometimes
wonder whether my swishes are more about the chance to socialise than
they are about the clothes. Perhaps that’s the secret?”

Local swapping

In my hunt for a swapping service that isn’t limited to clothes, I turn to the internet. The first I try is U-Exchange, which seems to mimic the popular TV show of my childhood, Swap Shop.

type in my location, but the results are far from encouraging. The
nearest person to me is offering a football table in exchange for “SAS
war books”. I’m unsure what I find less appealing: the items to be
traded, or the thought of meeting up with this person.

is a far bigger site, probably because it doesn’t limit itself to
swapping, but also allows users to give or, for a fee set by the owner,
rent items to anyone who might want them.

Again, I type in my
location. And, again, I’m disappointed. All that is returned is someone
15 miles away renting their cross-trainer for £4.34 a day.

It is
patently obvious that these sites work best when you live within or
close to a high-density population, not in a rural setting such as my
home county of Cornwall. This is borne out when I type in my old London
postcode to find more than 200 items offered, ranging from a tennis
racket (free) and chocolate fountain (free), through to wellies (£2.27 a
day) and a lawnmower (£4.34 a day). I can easily see how this could be a
fantastic – and somewhat addictive – resource.

Postal swapping

Botsman recommends Bookhopper,
which lets users swap books much in the same way as a swish for clothes
but facilitated through the post. Swaps are limited by national
boundaries (to keep postal costs down) and you must offer at least 10
books before you can request one. This way there is always a fluid stock
of books in the system.

My wife warns me that all her books are
out of bounds. She employs a strangely possessive attitude to novels, so
much so that she doesn’t like to lend them “in case they bend the
spine”. I find 10 books that I’m happy to never see again, but the
challenge is harder than I thought. I suffer from “you never know when
you might need it”, especially when it comes to non-fiction, which
doesn’t exactly match the spirit of collaborative consumption.

it happens, after a week no one has requested any of my books. Adding my
unwanted copy of The Da Vinci Code to the 167 Dan Brown novels already
on offer has probably earned me the karma I deserve. An early lesson of
collaborative consumption is that it mimics Newton’s third law of
motion, namely that you tend to get out of it what you put in.

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About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.