x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Collaborative consumption challenges consumerist thought

Trust will be key in the latest consumer trend, which encourages people to share their possessions short-term, for a fee, rather than buying new.

From spare rooms to cameras, borrowing and sharing will soon be the norm, predict trend experts. iStockphoto
From spare rooms to cameras, borrowing and sharing will soon be the norm, predict trend experts. iStockphoto

The consumer society, as it operates now, relies on a deeply encoded ethic of individualism. No surprise, then, that from birth we are saturated by messages that tell us that our value is a function of what we have and that the meaning of life is to get more.

But does consumerism have to be built around the primacy of the individual, and individual ownership, at all? Now, a coterie of entrepreneurs and enthusiasts are seeking to challenge that dogma. Their big idea - it's being called collaborative consumption - is about using digital technology to help us move away from an ownership culture, and towards a culture of sharing, swapping and bartering. The establishment is taking notice: last year, Time magazine declared collaborative consumption one of its "ten ideas that will change the world".

Of course, sharing, swapping and the like are nothing new. But in an age of always-on, mobile connectivity, they can be transformed into vastly more powerful and more efficient ways of accessing goods and services. Need a bike? Chances are someone local will lend you one: and now that person is only a click away. Got a digital camera at home? Why not rent it for a few dirhams? You could even loan it for free: hey, it's only gathering dust otherwise.

The online accommodation marketplace Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) is currently the brightest star in the collaborative consumption galaxy. Here, users can list a spare room in their home for temporary let. Now, after a year of light-speed growth, more than three millions users have stayed more than 10 million nights in Airbnb-advertised rooms. Airbnb says New Yorkers who list their spare room make an average of US$1,600 (Dh5,900) a month. In its last round of funding this year, the site was valued at $1.3 billion.

The marketplace for cars is also host to a collaborative consumption boom. Europe's largest car sharing network, Carpooling (www.carpooling.com) recently launched in the US, where it will face competition from a spate of start-ups, including RideJoy (www.ridejoy.com). Meanwhile, clothes are going collaborative at the sharing network Swishing (www.swishing.com); you can even barter your spare time at TaskRabbit (www.taskrabbit.com), which connects people willing to run an errand with those nearby who need something done.

The leading proponent Rachel Botsmon - the author of the collaborative consumption manifesto What's Mine Is Yours (Collins, Dh74) - says we're on the eve of a transformation as significant as the industrial revolution. It's certainly clear that collaboration has the power to ameliorate the vast inefficiencies that are part of the ownership model. How many car journeys do you take alone? Statistics say it's probably about eight out of 10. By helping people to share journeys, Carpooling says it has saved the planet 430 million litres of petrol.

Trust, says Botsmon, will be the new currency in a collaborative world. She predicts the rise of reputation-rating sites, which aggregate our behaviour across eBay, Amazon and other platforms to let others know that it's safe to rent us a spare room, say, or lend us a device.

It remains to be seen, however, whether that will be enough to persuade most of us to let strangers into our homes. Or whether we'll be able to end our comfortingly familiar love affair with acquisition and ownership. Will you be a willing participant in the sharing economy? Like it or not, you're about to find out.