“The system of consumerism may seem like an immovable fact of modern life. But it is not. That the system was manufactured suggests that we can reshape those forces to create healthier, more sustainable system with a more fulfilling goal than ‘more stuff’.”
Rachel Botsman, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption
What if, instead of having to own things we might only use a handful of times, or instead of building or buying something using brand new materials produced with non-renewable resources, we can just borrow stuff from each other instead?
Collaborative Consumption or the sharing economy is a socio-economic system built around the sharing, swapping, bartering, trading and renting of human and physical resources, made increasingly possible through the latest technologies and peer-to-peer marketplaces.
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It is a movement and ideology that gained popularity after a TED talk and book on Collaborative Consumption by author Rachel Botsman.
While the idea has gained momentum with similar-minded, starry-eyed “changemakers”, we’re far from the point wherein sharing is the norm, a default state we should aspire for versus our current defaults for constant consumption. Our current consumer mindset and behavior is a habit or system that we put into place on our own, so we do have the capacity to reshape our approach to it too.
Through Collaborative Lab, founder Rachel Botsman and Chief Knowledge Officer Lauren Capelin aim to help companies, governments, and other organizations embrace the collaborative economy in order to revolutionize business and society.
Lauren was one of Rachel’s early allies, and herself very passionate about making an impact through her work on the global collaborative consumption movement. She is actively involved in Sydney’s technology, social innovation and sustainability communities, and has built networks in more than 30 countries to support the growth of the movement in cities around the world.
MUNI: What got you into promoting collaborative consumption? How did this become such a core passion for you?
LAUREN: I was lucky enough to meet the author Rachel Botsman as she was nearing the end of writing her book, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. When she described this concept and all the ideas springing up around it, I was hooked! It just made so much sense that we should start to connect with each other much more, support each other and share what we have to help everyone live happier, more sustainable and healthy lives. Rachel then asked if I would be interested to work with her to share these ideas and grow the movement. That was more than four years ago and I haven’t looked back!
“Guess what percentage of total material flow through this system is still in product or use 6 months after their sale in North America. Fifty percent? Twenty? NO. One percent. One! In other words . . . 99 percent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within 6 months.”
Rachel Botsman, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption
MUNI: What is the end goal of collaborative consumption?
LAUREN: For me it’s about reducing the consumerist pressure that still drives society so much – that we should accumulate more and more just so we can compare ourselves to others, rather than investing in what makes us happy, sharing it with others, and relying on them to fill the gaps in our own lives. It’s about restoring the balance between needs and wants, and helping us live more simple yet satisfying lives, as well as recognising that we really all are in this together so we might as well help each other out!
MUNI: What are your favorite examples of collaborative consumption? And what makes them work (as in be actually sustainable and successful and not just in theory)?
LAUREN: I have been so amazed and inspired by many examples of collaborative consumption around the world, as well as the incredible founders and passionate communities driving this change. Currently, I am really impressed by Peerby, a Dutch neighborhood sharing network, but am also an avid carsharer here in Sydney (I haven’t owned a car in 8+ years!), and a dedicated Airbnb traveller. But I love examples that empower people to think differently about their time and their assets so they can live ‘richer’ lives in all senses of the word.
As for what makes them work, well, this is a very complex area! There are a few key principles we suggest that entrepreneurs keep in mind. The first is to address a real need or solve a problem – it’s hard to argue with a system that works better than the status quo, and that’s how things go viral. Secondly, to pick a very specific niche or product to focus on in the early days and build a community around that, which will help to reach the right density and scale – so many companies fail due to a lack of critical mass. Third, user experience is key. If it’s complex or convoluted to use your product, you certainly won’t be able to change user behavior at the same time. Make it easy to form a habit with your product.
MUNI: What have been your biggest struggles in changing consumer mindsets about the idea of ownership vs. access? How did you overcome this (at least for the individuals you’ve managed to convince)? And what else do you think needs to be done to convince those who have yet to be convinced?
LAUREN: We see this as a bit of a life cycle problem that is constantly changing as the space evolves. At first it was about convincing people that they didn’t need to own everything themselves, and that sharing with others was possible. Then it became about shifting the values to access over ownership through all parts of people’s lives, and why this makes so much sense. We have really reached a turning point with this over the last two years where it is rare to meet someone who doesn’t see the value of this idea. The bigger challenge we have now is long term behavior change, and how to make this an automatic part of someone’s life.
Having said that, there are huge cultural differences around the world, and some countries are further behind, or further in front, than others. Particularly in places like the Philippines, the culture around ownership is just developing and becoming stronger, so it’s hard to say, ‘Hey, actually we’ve changed our minds and accumulating stuff isn’t a good measure of status – in fact it creates more problems!’ So it’s going to take a long time to reach global awareness.
MUNI: I think one of the biggest challenges of collaborative consumption is largely creating the infrastructure for it (apart from changing consumer mindsets). What advice would you give to someone who is looking to create a solution using collaborative consumption?
LAUREN: It’s true that especially in the early days many of the tools or technologies that make collaborative consumption systems work weren’t available, but now it is becoming easier to pick off-the-shelf technology to create the platforms in the early days in a lean way. While the technology is critical to making the experience seamless and frictionless, there are ways that collaborative consumption ideas can be put in place with little more than a Facebook group, Google Docs and a good administrator! Don’t be distracted by the technologies, but focus on what the user needs and build around that.
MUNI: What other trends do you see happening in collaborative consumption? What is the future of collaborative consumption?
LAUREN: Something of real interest to us is how cities and local governments embrace collaborative consumption at a deeper level to support public service provision and enable more entrepreneurial and collaborative solutions to the problems we face. This, along with the adoption of collaborative consumption principles at more of an industrial level would be an ideal future outcome. And I think we are on our way!
MUNI: What does the future of the planet look like to you if people adopted more collaborative consumer behavior?
LAUREN: I hope it becomes a future where resources are used much more wisely, and that more mileage is gotten out of the things we produce and consume. I hope it’s a place where we are measured by the positive impact we create, rather than the wealth or assets we accumulate for our own benefit. I hope it’s one where we can seamlessly and easily collaborate with each other around all sorts of things and that we’re individually empowered to follow our passions and share our skills with each other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JEN HORN (@nomadmanager) is a wanderer, writer, and designer out to build the MUNI community, create a culture of caring for self, others, and the planet, and make choosing better a way of life as MUNI’s Chief Collaborator. She is also a lover of handwoven textiles, and aims to keep weaving traditions alive through the use of Philippine textiles in modern fashion with her side project Tala Luna.