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Bethany Hubbard and Sarah Moore/MEDILL

Collaborative consumption, a fancy name for sharing.

 


Collaborative consumption: One block, one drill

by Bethany Hubbard and Sarah Beth Moore
May 20, 2011


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Sarah Moore/MEDILL

hubbard bicycle

Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

B-cycle in Chicago is a bike sharing system that allows people to rent bicycles for use throughout the city. The pay box even uses solar power.

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Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

Bike sharing is just one way that Chicagoans can participate in collaborative consumption.

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Data courtesy of Adam Goldstein with The Center for Neighborhood Technology. Graph by Sarah Moore/MEDILL.

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Bethany Hubbard/MEDILL

I-GO is Chicago's first nonprofit homegrown car sharing company.

How often do you need to drill a hole? Maybe you only use your camping tent once a year or your step ladder once a month.

If you’re like most people, the drill stays in the case most of the year, said Chuck Templeton, founder of the new website, ohsowe.com.

The Chicago-based site encourages collaborative consumption, the idea of bartering, trading and sharing goods and services in local communities by bringing people into contact with neighbors who have what they need and live close by.

“If I needed a drill in the past, it was just easier for me to go to the store and buy one,” Templeton said. “Now I can actually see five or six different neighbors who might have a drill that I could borrow and use for the couple hours that I might need it, and then be able to return it.”

That saves money, saves the resources of the planet and actually builds bonds with neighbors, he said.

On ohsowe.com you can find neighbors whose collective skills include beekeeping, web design, real estate and drywall repair. Need a cider press? Well, someone next door just might have one.

Templeton said that the whole idea is not only more earth-friendly, but it's actually easier to borrow a drill from a neighbor, rather than go out and buy one. Why not share a neighborhood drill, rather than waste resources letting 20 drills sit in tool chests?

And a drill is just the beginning.

“The great thing about collaborative consumption is that it puts the consumer first, which is to say that it operates and functions by offering the consumer a better solution,” said Roo Rogers, director of Redscout Ventures in New York City, who co-authored the book “What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live.”

Co-author Rachel Botsman, who currently resides in Sydney, Australia, and Rogers believe that consumers own as much as they do not because they want to, but for lack of a better alternative. If needed utilities and services were easily available for loan from trusted, local sources, people would feel less inclined to shop and more inclined to borrow.

“What makes it so alluring is, not only do you have the benefit of not having to store more stuff, you don’t have to buy new stuff,” Rogers said.

Even if the phrase is new, collaborative consumption is an idea that has been with us for as long as people had neighbors.

“Collaborative consumption is basically a very old, traditional behavior that has been put on steroids today and allows for mass coordination and efficiency,” Rogers said.

In this analogy, steroids represent the Internet, a highly efficient tool for linking people to one another on a small-scale, neighborhood level. Websites such as ohsowe.com and others like it allow people to network in ways that haven’t been possible until quite recently. For instance, swap.com, a forum that allows users to trade their old goods for second-hand stuff they want

“There’s always been sharing going on.” Templeton said. In the past, people living in smaller communities relied on sharing all the time. "It’s less so than it used to be, but what the Internet continues to add to that is to simplify that process.”

Even less tech-heavy models, such as car-sharing operations, wouldn’t have seemed so feasible several years ago.

“That’s what I-GO is,” said Sharon Feigon, CEO of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Wicker Park. I-GO, Chicago’s first nonprofit homegrown car sharing company, provides customers with shared, fuel-efficient, low-emission alternatives to owning a car.

“It’s about taking these very expensive assets – cars – and making them available for many different people” through membership plans, she said.

Feigon agrees with Rogers that our stage of Internet development and involvement is what makes these kinds of activities possible.

“I think it’s a combo of the technology available and changes in outlook and lifestyle that have made it the right time for these kinds of programs,” she said.

I-GO provides a good microcosm for the environmental impact of sustainable consumption: 73 percent of members either sell their cars or postpone the decision to buy one. What’s more, the center estimates that I-GO’s institution has single-handedly removed almost 9,500 vehicles from the road.

“I use I-GO because it’s a great way to save money, I don’t have to pay for the gas and car insurance, and I simply pay for a car for the limited amount of time that I use it,” said Printers Row resident Kathryn Eggers, 35.

Eggers said that she likes the idea that the I-GO cars are fuel-efficient with low-emissions.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to have many people sharing one resource,” she said. “I know it's working in cars, but I think there’s a lot of potential for that in other areas as well, especially in urban areas.”

Chicago boasts other car sharing services as well, such as Zipcar, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that promotes itself as the world's largest car sharing and car club service.

Of course, the car you rent doesn’t necessarily have to be owned by a company. Botsman, Rogers and other proponents of collaborative consumption advocate peer-to-peer car sharing, where a neighbor might arrange to borrow a car. Unlike I-GO, this would require a potential user to make sure that vehicles they borrow have acceptable car insurance policies.

Other incarnations of the model include bicycle sharing and rentals of all sorts: toys, designer fashion pieces, and plain old stuff from the guy next door.

Ron Fleckman, president of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, said that sharing produce from vegetable gardens is a prime example of how collaborative consumption can work in a community.

“Harvest time comes and there is more stuff than they can ever use,” Fleckman said. “Here we have a town where there is a fairly large disparity, or a diversity, among its citizens, where people with excess kinds of things could help people who don’t have excess things.”

Fleckman and Templeton are working to make Evanston a pilot city for collaborative consumption and, through their partnership, are endeavoring to help Evanston meet its ambitious sustainability goals, a project that is ongoing.

A decreasing level of sentimentality about our stuff is helping the model, Feigon said. Once people might have felt their car defined them. Now many people view a car as just another tool.

This is good for collaborative consumption.

“There are things that are hard to share and put into this matrix, like things that have sentimental value,” Rogers said. But anything that doesn’t is fair game, he said, rattling off lemon squeezers, skills and time as examples.

So are there any obstacles?

The biggest challenge may actually be getting people to trust their neighbors in a city where people are taught to watch their backs.

“A big reason why we put the communication tool in there is so that people can start to communicate, and, when they get comfortable, be able to actually contribute to the resources that are in the neighborhood,” Templeton said.

He added that he is working on a ratings system that will allow ohsowe.com users to evaluate peers.

“The idea is not to point out the negative people in the group, but to really accentuate the positive people,” he said.

For Rogers, collaborative consumption is well on its way to the mainstream.

“It’s grown from nothing to something in the last four or five years,” Rogers said. “People are really signing on to the notion, and it’s hard to see who could stop it.”