You may be hearing the term a lot lately as the aptly-dubbed sharing economy takes greater strides into our everyday lives. The phrase is used to describe an increasingly popular mode of consumption that encompasses initiatives both large and small — from short-term rental giant Airbnb and pseudo-taxi service Uber to neighbors swapping tools over the backyard fence. According to some, this peer-to-peer sharing economy isn’t just changing the way we allocate resources, it has the potential to change our lives.

1. Overcoming Overconsumption

First, it offers a simple, easy-to-access solution to the patterns of consumption that threaten our natural world. Simply put, our current methods of acquiring and disposing of consumer goods are wildly unsustainable. A study released by a UCLA research team meticulously tracked 32 Los Angeles families for four years, and results were staggering. Seventy-five percent of garages had no room to store a car and were filled instead with between 300 to 650 storage boxes and items from the home.

All my worldly possessions...
Do you have a garage, storage space, or room that looks like this? Image courtesy of Kathy McEldowney.

On average, three rooms of the typical home held more than 2,200 possessions, and the amount of possessions increased by 30 percent with each child. This level of consumption causes stress for the consumer, who has to constantly interact with this overwhelming array of items, but it also places an impossible stress load on the environment due to the effects of manufacturing, shipping, and disposing of these items.

The sharing economy has the potential to change this by making it easier for people to trade rarely used items, create systems of borrowing, or invest in shared ownership. It all adds up to a drastic shift towards reduction of the stuff clogging our homes — and our landfills.

2. Saving Money

Secondly, the sharing economy saves money so we can — if we so choose — spend it in support of our sustainability values. When people make the choice to support local artisans rather than big box stores and buy locally grown produce, meat, and dairy instead of fast-food or microwave meals, savvy budgeting becomes a priority. But by reducing money spent on accumulating unnecessary possessions, maintaining a personal vehicle, or even paying for costly hotel rooms, consumers can make these eco-friendly choices more easily, more often.

3. Increasing Customer Trust

And finally, the sharing economy encourages trust, a scarce commodity in our current capitalist system. Consumers are growing increasingly disillusioned by multi-national corporations. Suspicious of their motives and concerned about ethical business practices (or lack thereof), many consumers hunger for smaller-scale more transparent business models — and the peer-to-peer market is responding. Trust is a necessary prerequisite for, and a natural byproduct of, the sharing economy, and one that may be sorely needed as millennials take center stage.

According to TechRepublic, citing surveys by Pew Research, “only 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared to 31% of Gen Xers, and 40% of boomers … Overcoming the hurdle of not trusting each other — of staying distant geographically and feeling attached to belongings that we have no reason to be attached to anymore — will require a shift in cultural values.”

I think we’re up to the challenge.

Feature image courtesy of Ben Grey

Editor’s note: Originally published on March 24, 2015, this article was updated in September 2018.

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.