01 September 2010

The Big Share Option

Written by Published in Issue 23 - Beyond Matter Read 7650 times

Every day, over the internet, we sell, buy, exchange, learn, organise and debate with complete strangers. Our role as 21st century consumers has completely changed.

Although Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine Is Yours discovered the title for her book on an Elliot Morris CD, the title could not be more fitting for a book about the rise of Collaborative Consumption.

The bones of her ideas are based on years of research, which has revealed that decades of ‘Hyper-Consumption’ are certainly over, and have been replaced with Collaborative Comsumption – a world of eBay-style swapping networks and systems that match a need with a solution.

Botsman separates the process into three distinct categories: Redistributive Markets – the trend for upcycling or passing on old or unused items, for example, the swap site Freecycle; Product Service Systems – the ever-growing practice of renting out your items for a fee and thus sharing ownership of that item, of which Bag Borrow or Steal, Inc is a perfect example. Here, you can hire designer fashion pieces or trade in old designer items for something new. The third is Collaborative Lifestyles – sharing your space, environment or time with others, such as those who use CouchSurfing to find hosts to stay with while travelling. These are just a few examples where the online community has ‘cut out the middleman’ of corporations and have allowed people to build good business relationships with unidentified users on the net.

There are, writes Botsman, ‘trust mechanisms involved in this system. Just a few years ago, it would have seemed like a crazy idea that I would swap my stuff with a complete stranger, whose real name I don’t even know. Technology is enabling trust between strangers.’

The book refers to ‘The Big Shift’ from the point where, in the 20th century, consumer patterns were built on elaborate advertising campaigns which excited us enough to take steps to buy and have ownership of the item in question. As long as you had a good credit history, you were good enough to purchase the car, house and the computer. But the Collaborative Consumption of the 21st century places more importance on your online ‘reputation’, such as your seller rating on eBay. A product is promoted through the community rather than via advertising, and it has ‘shared access’ rather than being ‘owned’.

'A renewed belief in the sense of community'

‘Collaborative Consumption has the potential to create more sustainable consumerism, reinvent outdated modes of business and help change the way we live,’ Botsman continues.

Botsman believes we now enjoy the right conditions for Collaborative Consumption to grow and mature. ‘We really are in a “perfect storm” to create a powerful shift from individual getting and spending towards a rediscovery of collective good.’ Just one condition that has cost us all but is timely to that growth is that, as a result of the economic crash in 2008, trust in the economy has been shattered. ‘[There is] a global recession that has fundamentally shocked consumer behaviours.’

In a recent talk at TEDx Sydney, Botsman explains other factors that are essential to the boom and growth of collaboration: ‘It is happening because of these key drivers: first, a renewed belief in the sense of community, and a very new definition of what “friend” and “neighbour” really mean. Second, a torrent of peer-to-peer social networks and real-time technologies, and third, pressing unresolved environmental concerns.’

Communities are taking matters into their own hands to create and make the most of Collaborative Consumption. However, it does not mean that large corporations cannot be a part of that spirit. Botsman reasons that large businesses ‘need to move from a point of sale to a point of service mindset. Plus, rather than just focusing on number of goods sold, they need to shift to thinking about membership and micropayments built around usage … Companies should see Collaborative Consumption as an opportunity to innovate and grow, increase customer loyalty and create new sources of revenue – not to mention a cleaner conscience. For example, why doesn’t Zappos [a huge online shoe-shopping site] create a shoe-repair system that makes worn shoes as good as new, and attach a swap market to it?’

'A humongous hangover of emptiness'

Co-author Roo Rogers adds that ‘Collaborative Consumption … fits almost seamlessly into our current capitalist market economy. Major businesses with significant profits such as Netflix are prospering in Collaborative Consumption and are replacing the older, unsustainable models at an exciting and dynamic pace.’

Despite the positivity and the hype, Collaborative Consumption could be criticised as being overly promising as an answer to the consumer’s problems. Some do not believe that the movement is strong enough to disassemble large transnational corporations who are loaded with money and faithful customers.

However, Botsman concludes: ‘I believe we’re in a period where we’re waking up from a humongous hangover of emptiness and waste, and we’re taking a leap to create a more sustainable system built to serve our innate needs for community and individual identity.’

What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers is published by HarperCollins


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