As environmental resources become increasingly scarce, companies and governments are looking for more sustainable ways for society to consume. One area of sustainable consumption that has been relatively overlooked at in academia is alternative ways of using products. My thesis as part of my Masters course at King’s College London looked at a concept called ‘collaborative consumption’- online platforms that allow for the renting, swapping and sharing of goods and services as opposed to buying new goods and either leaving them sitting un-used at home or throwing them out and ending up in landfill.
In the past year, the UK spent almost £3 billion on products that have rarely been used. The UK dumps more household waste into landfill than any other European state. In the US, although half of the population owns a power drill, it is used on average for only 6-13 minutes in its lifetime.
Despite these statistics, a recent study showed that over half of the UK would like to find ways of being able to share their time and resources with their local community and that 8 out of 10 people say sharing makes them happy. The Internet has transformed traditional ways of sharing (such as libraries, video stores, laundrettes) into online platforms that facilitate the sharing and swapping of goods (such as Freecycle, Ebay, Airbnb).
As part of my thesis, I examined collaborative consumption schemes that had an environmental or social focus: Streetbank, Bid and Borrow, Ecomodo (sites that allow for goods and services to be shared); Swishing (clothes swapping parties); and Landshare (connects people with spare land with people who want to grow vegetables). I did this via in-person interviews and participant observations. I also interviewed the UK Government as they plan to move the UK towards a more collaborative consumption economy.
Here are some findings and thoughts from my research:
Trust and Risk issues
A general theme that arose from the interviews is that there is an issue of trust in today’s society and a perception that we live in a more dangerous world. Although the Internet can be used to connect people who own goods with those that want access to them, trust and risk issues need to be overcome.
This could be done by:
- Tapping into communities with existing levels of trust: Ecomodo allows for ‘lending circles’ to be created on their website by getting schools, sports clubs, and other communities with existing trust to share with each other online. Bid & Borrow approach existing workplaces to use their platform to get employees to share amongst each other. Tapping into these existing communities is also a way to try to achieve critical mass.
- Using offline to generate online: For Streetbank, holding street parties and church fetes always results in a buzz of online activity as people become aware of the scheme and can see what type of people they will be sharing with.
- Establishing physical infrastructures to allow for safe and easy sharing: Some people do not like the idea of a stranger coming to their house to borrow items. Establishing physical places for people to swap items overcomes this problem. Ecomodo has plans to reverse the decline of libraries by using them as a place where lenders and borrowers can meet in a safe environment to pick up and drop off their items. Bid & Borrow have started The One Million Person Sharing Plan in Wales by getting 100 volunteers to establish physical sharing hubs around the country.
Throughout my research, community and social interaction are the most common reasons for why people participate in the collaborative consumption schemes I examined. It is why the women I interviewed preferred swapping their clothes at Swishing events rather than selling their clothes on Ebay. Drinking champagne, chatting about fashion and making new friends is part of the appeal of recycling clothes through Swishing rather than in front of a computer. The schemes I examined were also a way for people to meet their neighbours.
An interesting insight from the schemes I examined was that money was not a key driver for using some of the schemes. Over 90% of lenders on Ecomodo choose to direct payments they receive from borrowers to charities instead of receiving it themselves. On Landshare, the majority of growers give vegetables they grow to the landowner in exchange for garden space rather than paying rental fees for land.
- A way to legitimise excessive consumption?
In academic literature on second hand shops, they are said to contain ambiguities as they legitimise excessive consumption for bargain-seeking consumers. This could also be implicated in collaborative consumption where consumers may consume more as it is cheaper to do so.
- A ‘try before you buy’ mindset? Or not?
Collaborative consumption could allow for consumers to ‘try’ many things resulting in direct purchases such as renting a dress, liking it, and then purchasing it outright thus encouraging more consumption. However, through my research and the thoughts of Rachel Botsman, author of What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, collaborative consumption could actually allow for consumers to be more discerning and make less impulsive purchases. This was noticed by Ecomodo co-founder Tracy Currer through renting out their iPad to seven different users – ‘Being able to take something home for the weekend, and knowing that you’ve only got it for the weekend, you play with it to death. [It] really gets the hype factor out of your system’. Collaborative consumption could therefore possibly lead to a ‘try before you buy’ mindset and decrease impulse purchases.
- Long term sustainable behaviour change?
According to Tom Crompton, motivating people on extrinsic values such as money, status or image may not result in sustainable behaviour change, and may in fact reinforce these values. For example if someone buys a hybrid car for prestige reasons, they will have reduced motivations to act in pro-environmental ways in other areas of their life. In Botman’s book, she states that the appeal of collaborative consumption is that it appeals to self-interested reasons and sustainability is an unintended consequence. She states that it doesn’t matter if consumers don’t change their mindset as long as collaborative consumption leads to more positive outcomes like reduced waste or more efficient usage of products.
Can collaborative consumption schemes that motivate people based on extrinsic, self-enhancement values such as money, status or image therefore result in long term sustainable behaviour change? Women attend Swishing to save money and to obtain new clothes to look good which taps into extrinsic values. It was beyond the scope of my research to examine whether this would lead to long term sustainable behaviour change but a small qualitative study done by Futerra seems to disprove Crompton’s theory. Futerra has discovered that some women that participate in Swishing are more likely to take up environmental action in other areas in their life such as catching public transport or buying organic.
The future of Collaborative Consumption?
Collaborative consumption is still in its early stages but as more collaborative consumption start-ups appear in the scene and more large corporations like B&Q and BMW start changing their business models to one of sharing, swapping and renting, they indicate that collaborative consumption could get big fairly soon.
One risk is if more corporations come on board and offer collaborative consumption models that co-opt the smaller start-ups that exist today. This could also change the dynamic from peer-to-peer sharing to business-to-consumer sharing which will take away the social and community reasons of why people participate in collaborative consumption in the first place.
The future is hard to predict but collaborative consumption will be an interesting space to watch over the upcoming decades to see whether it can make fundamental shifts in the way we consume.
If you would like to contact me for a copy of my thesis or have any questions, please contact me here