The future of (un)consumption

How a business model of sharing and caring is replacing traditional consumerism

Two weeks ago, much-beleaguered American bookseller Borders Group filed for bankruptcy, following other former giants of North American consumption like Circuit City, Blockbuster, and General Motors into Chapter 11. In the press release, Borders president Mike Edwards tersely cited “curtailed consumer spending.” People, it seems, are not buying enough books. Or televisions. Or cars.

Where some see only the purse-tightening aftershocks of the economic recession, people like Rachel Botsman and Lauren Anderson see the first casualties of a dramatic shift in consumption habits. The decades-old model of wasteful hyper-consumption is quickly ceding ground to a cleaner, sharing and swapping-based model called Collaborative Consumption. Botsman and Anderson are part of a movement that has researched and mapped out the phenomenon, most recently in the 2010 book What’s Mine Is Yours, which Botsman co-authored.

“Collaborative Consumption puts a system in place where people can share resources without forfeiting cherished personal freedoms or sacrificing their lifestyle,” Botsman wrote in the introduction to What’s Mine Is Yours.
The Collaborative Consumption model re-imagines traditional industry by creating services that work to efficiently re-allocate existing resources (like used textbooks and idle guest rooms) rather than churning out new ones. The most successful examples, like Netflix and Bixi, create secondary markets for used or shared possessions without the poor-quality stigma that typically accompanies communal or secondhand resources, like public restrooms and Salvation Army clothing.

Renting happiness

Collaborative Consumption is rooted in the principle of separating product benefits from product purchase or ownership. A bike you pick up at a Bixi station will serve the same purpose as a bike that spends most of its day in your garage or a campus bike rack. A secondhand textbook will contain the same information as the shrink-wrapped one that costs three times more at the bookstore. Food eaten on a communal Plate Club dish will not taste any different from food in the SSMU cafeteria’s single-use Styrofoam. In all cases of Collaborative Consumption, consumers can save money without forfeiting any product benefits or attributes – all they sacrifice is individual ownership.

The environmental benefits of lower purchase demand are easily implied. Anderson, innovation strategist at Collaborative Consumption Lab – an agency that advises businesses on how to  implement Cllaborative Consumption strategies – said a key facet of Collaborative Consumption systems is “cradle-to-cradle” design, in which reuse replaces disposal.
“The concept that there is no ‘away’ grows more and more apparent every day,” Anderson wrote in an email from Sydney, Australia. “We are exceeding the planet’s capacity to deal with this waste.”

What sets Collaborative Consumption apart from other environmental movements is that it does not require us to use or enjoy less – just to actually own less. In many cases, in fact, Collaborative Consumption systems allow users to enjoy more than traditional consumption would permit. “Can’t buy happiness? Rent it!” urges Avelle, an online accessory rental service that lets users borrow Chanel totes and Louis Vuitton purses.

Zipcar, an hourly-or-daily-rate car sharing network now operating in over fifty major cities across the globe, prides itself not only on the quality and ubiquity of its vehicles, but on the fact that owners can drive a different car every day if they choose and never incur the costs of owning or insuring the vehicle. Under Collaborative Consumption, if it can be bought new, it can probably be rented at the same quality, with the same benefits, at a much lower cost.

“It is clear that for every current traditional market, there is an opportunity for a Collaborative Consumption-based alternative,” Anderson wrote.

By providing benefits without ownership, Collaborative Consumption networks make it possible for anyone to wear diamond earrings without maxing out their credit cards, Bixi along the Lachine Canal without ever having to buy a bike lock or – like Marie Thomas, U3 Physics at McGill – spend ten days in New York City without dropping a dime on lodging.

Communities, not customers

When Marie Thomas travels, rather than bargain-hunt on hotel websites, she consults the CouchSurfing network. Couch Surfers have instant, rent-free access to each other’s thousands of futons, spare beds, and sleeping bags around the world. The reference-based system is built on mutual trust and credibility, which members can earn by being excellent guests, hosts, or both. For well-referenced Couch Surfers like Marie, the travel possibilities are limitless – free lodging awaits her in Panama, Belarus, and Thailand.

“[People I tell] say they would love to do it, but they kind of have this reaction like, ‘is it safe?’” Thomas said. “And I’m always like, absolutely.”

CouchSurfing embodies the driving principle of Collaborative Consumption – idle capacity. Many of us have a couch, sink, and toilet that simply aren’t in use 24 hours a day. When systems like CouchSurfing make this idle space available to travellers like Thomas, they distribute resources more evenly without creating demand for an additional hotel room.
For many users, however, the focus is not on environmentally-friendly resource allocation, but on the close-knit communities these systems forge. Both Thomas and Anderson praised the personal connections inherent in an exchange based on sharing rather than purchase.

“The sense of community that is present in all Collaborative Consumption exchanges is truly remarkable,” Anderson wrote.
Thomas, who during her ten days in Brooklyn ate, lived, and partied with nearly a dozen other Couch Surfers from countries as far-flung as Syria, agrees that the friendships she’s made are the highlights of her CouchSurfing career. “I feel like I have a family [in Brooklyn] now,” Thomas said. “I had that good a time.”

Thomas added that as a host, she tends to reject the occasional Couch Surfing request if the only personalized aspect of their message is her name. The point of this system, she stressed, is not to give freeloaders a cheap night’s stay.
“For the sake of the culture and community, you should make an attempt to be interested in your host,” Thomas said. “How are you going to connect with someone who is just using you as a hostel?”

Trust between strangers

While services like Bixi and CouchSurfing are flourishing on the principles of Collaborative Consumption, it has yet to become a prevalent blueprint for designing systems that prioritize allocating resources over creating new ones.
Anderson believes that one of the biggest hurdles will be building trust between strangers – a key driving force of Collaborative Consumption systems. “[Trust between strangers] is the most important ingredient to get right,” Anderson wrote. “Without this as a stable building block, it is very difficult to achieve the right level of critical mass.”

Anderson pointed out that the most successful systems have built-in mechanisms for effectively establishing that trust, such as CouchSurfing’s reference system and eBay’s buyer feedback process. “Through building this trust, these systems scaled rapidly to support a critical mass of users who all have an inherent belief in the value and success of the system.”

Moving forward fast

Even when systems get all of the ingredients right, Collaborative Consumption is not likely to supplant traditional consumption. Ideally, the two would exist side-by-side, and most consumers of the future would have one foot in both camps.
“While it may continue to be necessary to buy certain things ‘new,’” Anderson said, “Collaborative Consumption has the potential to be an equal counterpart to other more traditional forms of consumption.”

Anderson added that businesses that stick doggedly to the practices of wasteful consumption are likely to go the way of Blockbuster and Borders.

“Some industries might be slower than others in recognizing the importance of a Collaborative Consumption model,” Anderson conceded. “[But] those who don’t catch up will certainly be left behind the newcomers.”