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TrendWatch 2012: Legitimization of the Access Economy

In honor of the release of Trendwatch 2012, we'll be rolling out posts about sustainability and economic recovery. You can find them here all week, or read the whole set here. Please also join us for a free webinar on February 29th where we'll be discussing the role of sustainability in economic recovery.

“Sharing is caring,” or at least that is what they teach you in kindergarten.  With the advent of such service platforms as Craigslist, Netflix and ZipCar, one might say that tech and social entrepreneurs took this lesson to a whole new level.  But the idea of sharing the commons for the common good is nothing new. Community development resource-sharing initiatives like bike coops, food banks, book exchanges, clothing swaps, tool trades and community gardens have been around for decades.

So while the internet didn’t reinvent the wheel here, social networking tools make bartering, sharing, swapping and renting out our own goods more widely acceptable and accessible.  Now start-ups can harness these alternative resource-distributing communities using supporting technology, making “people power” a real game changer financially, environmentally and socially.

As of 2012, the concept of sharing has moved from a community practice into a legitimate business opportunity. This increasing legitimacy is reflected in the more polished terms used to describe the phenomenon like peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, collaborative consumption or the access economy.  Some advocates wax philosophical that this emerging sharing economy has come about because society has collectively arrived at a more altruistic place in our evolution.   Others simply attribute it to Clinton’s old adage, “it’s the economy, stupid,” with trying financial times forcing us to reevaluate the way we interact with one another and with the resources we have at hand.  Whether it is a monetary or social paradigm shift, Time considers the access economy to be one of “10 Ideas That Will Change the World.” We agree.

Shedding the outdated model of antagonistic individual competition for personal gain, this system flourishes on communal resource sharing for mutual benefit.  When asked in an interview why collaborative consumption is budding, What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption authors Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers expound, “The convergence of peer-to-peer social networks, a renewed belief in the importance of community, pressing unresolved global environmental concerns, and cost consciousness is moving us gradually away from the old top-heavy, centralized, and controlled forms of consumerism towards one of sharing, aggregation, openness, and cooperation.”

Co-sharing startups and local resource swaps like NeighborGoods, Freecycle, SnapGoods, Sharehood and SwapStyle are stepping up to the plate to save and make folks a little extra cash by selling, renting or trading used goods that they either rarely use or want to get rid of.

Finance has been overhauled with the dawn of P2P micro-lending and micro-funding platforms like as ZOPA, Kiva, and Kickstarter, putting money in the hands of individuals, startups, or organizations by individuals who want to support specific causes, people or ideas.

The agricultural sector is catching on with land-swapping initiatives akin to Landshare – an innovative solution for wannabe farmers whose biggest challenge is access to capital and affordable land, offering small plots of unused space.  Shared dining platforms such as GoGrubly organize underground dinners for “members only” by pairing up local chefs who cook at their homes with people who want to eat a good meal nearby.

Education is being reinvented with experimental institutions like the TradeSchool, a bartering education project by OurGoods, which holds classes in NYC varying from composting and grant-writing to butter-making and scrabble strategy.  To attend a class, students trade with things like food, CDs and shoes.  Anyone is welcome to teach because everyone is valued and considered to have some sort of knowledge to offer.

SwapBabysitting and other online childcare swapping initiatives help parents set up neighborhood babysitting cooperatives where parents earn credit hours by sitting and can use those hours to “hire” fellow parent sitters.  Lightly used childrens’ products like clothing, toys and books can be bought and sold on ThredUp and reCrib – a big relief for parents who can’t or don’t want to spend money on brand new products their kids will soon grow out of anyway.

Travel lodging is an item on the personal budget list where many are pinching pennies and is probably why services like AirBnB and CouchSurfing have become so popular.  They provide short-term stays in a homier setting to the trekker either for free or at decent prices, with rating systems to ensure you aren’t staying somewhere unsafe or incompatible.

Finding cheap and easy access to personal transportation is facilitated with Getaround, the DIY of Zipcar, where folks can make an extra buck by renting out their own cars when they aren’t being used.  City bike sharing companies like Capital Bikeshare of DC are proliferating; Pick up one of their 1,200 bikes at  bike rack and drop it off at one of their 140 stations across town.

While entrepreneurs and innovators are no doubt capitalizing on this movement, some collaborative consumption believers caution that all will be lost if the sole motivation is profit.  The true gains come in the social revenue or the currency made up of people learning to trust one another, thereby cultivating reciprocal respect that creates an environment conducive to sharing.

Paul M. Davis illuminates this phenomenon to Shareable, “To create lasting and significant change, the sharing economy must be more than another form of ‘happy capitalism.’ It’s a way of diversifying income while building resilience and keeping money in your local economy. It extends the life cycle of products and lessens the burden of ownership. It builds social capital and fosters a collaborative mindset among citizens. And last but not least, it engenders better relationships among individuals and encourages new experiences.”

Clearly consumers are showing big business they don’t just want to be talked at, they want to be talked with -- actively engaged, co-creators of the things and services they use every day and co-problem solvers of our world’s greatest problems.  While it’s hard to say to where this all leads, individuals and communities are continuing to take it upon themselves to create systems that allow them to prosper collectively in an access economy that is good for their pocketbooks, families, neighborhoods and the Earth.

[Image credit: clarkmaxwell, crosby_cj, Flickr]

Lesley Lammers headshotLesley Lammers

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

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