Collaborative Consumption: The Cure for Consumer Guilt?

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The Internet has resurrected the age-old ideal of communal living in a time of economic hardship

Fifty years ago, before all the talk of “fair-trade”, corporate social responsibility, and climate change, was there such a thing as “consumer guilt”? Today, stories of guilt abound;  whether it’s the ethics of where our food comes from, how workers are treated, or our growing  carbon footprints — psychologists say our feelings of guilt are off the charts.

Regardless of how we feel about purchasing goods, the truth is that as Americans we buy and own a lot, and as we all know a lot goes to waste. Very few of us actually share anything. When we need something, we just buy it.  An alarming figure cited in GOOD captures the central failing of our hyper-consumerist culture:

There are 60 million drills in the United States and each is used, on average, 10 minutes a year. Multiply that by blenders that sit in the back of kitchen cabinets. Think coolers, ladders, ski pants, air mattresses — an ocean of household detritus sitting uselessly in every home on the block.

It’s because of this, the millions of drills and blenders just sitting in cabinets, that internet entrepreneur Chuck Templeton (founder of popular reservations site OpenTable) wanted to build an online network for sharing — and he isn’t the only one trying to bring us back to our communal roots.

There are more than 350 startups leading the collaborative consumption movement — a revitalized economic model based on sharing, swapping, bartering, trading or renting access to products as opposed to individual ownership.

We all know there’s nothing new about sharing but the current resurgence of peer-to-peer sharing has a different medium of exchange: the internet. Founder of car-sharing startup Getaround Jessica Scorpio says:

Formal sharing institutions are quickly becoming a thing of the past. It doesn’t require an in-depth analysis to recognize the role of technology in this shift. What started online as the sharing of information has quickly turned into a full-fledged economy, with individuals sharing their homes, cars, and skills with the help of mobile devices.

Templeton’s startup, OhSoWe, “is all about getting neighbors to share what they’ve got, so that collectively, we buy less.”

Other popular peer-sharing websites include:

Uniiverse launched as the new “collaborative consumption platform” to solve the problem of fragmentation across all of the various websites. Just type a location into Uniiverse and everything and anything  in your area that’s available to rent, share, borrow, and trade is at your fingertips.

According to Rachel Botsman, an evangelist of the sharing economy,  the consumer peer-to-peer rental market will become a $26 billion sector, and the sharing economy, in total, is a $110 billion-plus market. No wonder the startup community is starting to take to notice. There’s even a VC Firm called the Collaborative Fund created just for this emerging market. Their portfolio includes: Kickstarter, Code Academy, Massive Health and many more.

Botsman continues to explain the evolution of the social web:

[It] first enabled programmers to share code (Linux), then allowed people to share their lives (Facebook), and most recently encouraged creators to share their content (YouTube). Now we’re going into the fourth phase, where people are saying, ‘I can apply the same technology to share all kinds of assets offline, from the real world’.

What’s even more astonishing is the revenue individuals have raised as supplemental income through these websites. A Task Rabbit errand runner, on average, earns $15,000 a year and the average New York-based renter on Airbnb makes $21,000. Udemy, which allows anyone to host and take online classes, announced that its top ten teachers earned a combined $1.6 million over the last year.

The numbers speak for themselves. And “while making money on your unused stuff sounds great”, writes Morgan Clendaniel, “imagine not having to buy the stuff in the first place.”

Some say the sharing economy may be the cure for consumer guilt, or perhaps put a dent in our culture of hyperconsumption all together, but is all this sharing just a reaction to the financial adversity of a bad economy? Maybe we’re more likely to share because we can no longer afford to personally own so many things.

Yet regardless of the movement’s origins, it’s clear that consumers are taking the reins and restructuring the way day-to-day transactions occur — bypassing the need for bureaucratic, institutional structures and in the process limiting waste.

Manufacturers, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily catching on. Apple’s newly released MacBook Pro with Retina display, is being dubbed as one of the most difficult-to-repair computers ever made.  There’s more glue than there are screws and parts of the computer’s display, including the camera and Wi-Fi antennas, are fused together. So if any of those components  fail, you’ll have to replace the entire computer. Planned obsolescence anyone? Not to mention, planned inconvenience.

Not all industries will need an entire overhaul in order to keep up with changing trends in consumption, but as economist  Umair Haque writes:

If the people formerly known as consumers begin consuming 10% less and peering 10% more, the effect on margins of traditional corporations is going to be disproportionately greater…which means certain industries have to rewire themselves, or prepare to sink into the quicksand of the past.

It goes without saying that it’s pretty incredible how the internet has spurred a rebirth of communal consumption. With this shift in consumption patterns also comes a shift in societal perceptions of ownership. Yet, if you open any economics book you’ll read that capitalism is an economic system based on private property. The notion of “private” and “individual” are so deeply part of our culture that this collaborative consumption movement is all the more revolutionary.


About Sona Makker

Sona is a first-year law student studying technology law at Santa Clara University. She’s an advocate for online privacy, digital rights, and public access to the public domain. If she’s not arguing with her siblings over whether This American Life is better than Radiolab, you’ll probably find her whipping up vegetarian dishes, or attempting to do a headstand in yoga class.
Posted in: Consumer, Culture, Internet, Society