On a recent trip to Ecuador with my two young children, I organized several home stays with complete strangers. Airbnb helped match us with families with empty guest bedrooms halfway across the globe, creating a delightful experience for my family.

From peer-to-peer lending systems to home swaps, collaborative consumption uses network technologies to encourage people to swap, trade, barter, or give stuff or help to total strangers. This often brilliant use of technology enables trust between strangers, and is happening on a large scale.

“I believe we are in a period where we’re waking up from a humongous hangover of emptiness and waste, and we are taking a leap to create a more sustainable system built to serve our innate needs for community and individual identity,” explains Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption.

Image courtesy of Ben Grey.

This share economy concept embraces the notion raised by Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired that “Access is better than ownership.” Many exciting innovations are occurring around the globe, that make this safer, easier, and more fulfilling.

Botsman and Roo Rogers break collaborative consumption down into three categories.

  1. Redistribution markets take what is not needed and find a new home, helping to extend the lifecycle of items, while reducing waste. Why not use a crib or a set of blocks for several babies, instead of just one? Items can be swapped (perhaps on SwapTree), sold (Craigslist or Ebay), given away (Freecycle or Craigslist).
  2. Collaborative lifestyles involve sharing money, time, and skills. A time bank is a good example, where people contribute their time and skills teaching yoga, housekeeping, or repairing a car, banking hours that can be redeemed by others in the network for a service. Zopa is another interesting example, organizing peer-to-peer lending, eliminating the bank.
  3. Product service systems involve sharing items such as lawn mowers, skis, or cars, getting the benefit without ownership. It works most effectively with items that are durable, yet idle most of the time.

My family lives in Belfast Ecovillage, where we share use of our common house, with a dining room, kitchen, playroom, guest bedrooms, and root cellar. Although a guest bedroom is great to have several times a year, it would likely go unused much of the year if each 36 households had their own.

Some collaborative consumption enthusiasts suggest that sharing is in our nature. “We’re monkeys, and we’re born and bred to share and cooperate,” says Botsman. “And we were doing so for thousands of years, whether it’s when we hunted in packs, or farmed in cooperatives, before this big system called hyper-consumption came along and we built these fences and created out own little fiefdoms.”

Perhaps the internet is actually making us more human.

Feature image courtesy of GotCredit

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.