Collaborative consumption

Power drill ©Janet Allen
Our power drill

So materialism isn't the answer, but what is?

Clearly, we all have needs for some material items and needs for what these items can do for us.

How can we transform our relationship to stuff in a way that ensures our needs (not merely our "wants") are met while living in such a way that allows future generations to meet their needs?

So far, the most hopeful concept I've come across is collaborative consumption, an internet-enabled sharing and exchange of goods and services. Far from the '60s ideas of just sharing everything in a commune-type environment, some of these systems are actually businesses (think eBay), some are peer-to-peer transactions (think craigslist), and some may have other models.

The key to these new models of consumption is the internet, allowing people who have something to connect with people who need something—not just the person who happens to live next door, but almost anyone who lives anywhere in the world.

The possibilities are exciting since it promises the kind of transformation, not just patching, that's essential. As Rachel Botsman says, we can replace the hyperconsumption of the 20th century with the many forms of collaborative consumption in the 21st century.

The bottom line is that, as has famously been said, "We need the hole, not the drill." In other words, we don't all need to own, for example, a power drill—which on average is used just minutes a year—BUT we do want the services of a drill to create the hole we actually do need a few times each year. And, of course, this same logic applies to much (50%?, 75%? more?) of our stuff.

Ladder ©Janet Allen
Our useful, but seldom-used extension ladder

Another example is our extension ladder. We use it perhaps once or twice a year. When we need it, there is no substitute, so it's not an unnecessary item.

But does each household need to own one? And store one? As you can see, the only place we've found for this large item is stuffed between our leaf humus "barrel" and our rain barrel at the side of the house.

In fact, does every person really need to have their own car? Most cars are used no more than an hour or two a day, just sitting there overnight and during the day. What we really need is transportation, not a car.

Most people in our area (including us) just buy what they need, even though sharing would make more sense. The old adage "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" has strong roots in our culture and for us personally. Still though, sharing was more commonplace before the 1950s when the advertising industry managed to make ownership "cooler" than sharing.

Meanwhile, if we don't own it, we also don't have to take care of it, repair it, store it, or buy a new one when it gives out (which many products do by intentional design).

Today's young adults seem more comfortable sharing stuff, especially since they're living in a world of increasing needs and decreasing supplies. Our daughter's downtown neighborhood, for example, does a lot of ad hoc sharing on their neighborhood listserv.

What we've tried so far

We haven't done a lot of "collaborative consumption" yet, but we've tried a few things (though at the time we didn't think of it as collaborative consumption). We'll be making an intentional effort to experiment with some of these models of a different relationship between our needs for various services and ways to fill them.