Consumption 2.0

Ownership is being replaced by online tools to rent, share, and trade

3 min read

Zipcar’s predicate is that sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the eight-track, what the solar panel is to the coal mine. Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern; owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward. —Mark Levine, The New York Times Magazine

Have you noticed that as we dematerialize consumer goods (that is, change their atoms to bits), we’re less likely to own them? Businesses like iTunes have furtive terms of service that turn out to merely license the music you think you’re buying. And then there are fee-based services that forgo media ownership entirely, such as Spotify. As visionary and Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly puts it, “Access is better than owning.”

That sentiment is the driving force behind a new economic model called collaborative consumption, where consumers use online or off-line tools to rent, share, and trade goods and services. Some people refer to it as Zipcar capitalism, from the eponymous car sharing service wherein subscribers—who apparently without irony call themselves Zipsters— rent vehicles by the hour.

While Zipcar is an example of a business-to-consumer (B2C, in bizspeak) model, the real action in the sharing economy revolves around the new consumer-to-consumer (C2C) models. For example, if you’re not going to be using your house or apartment for a while, you might think about renting it out. In the past, this involved a huge hassle factor (the costs and time that it takes to find customers) and the ever-present stranger danger (the risk that your renter might trash your place). Fear not! Collaborative travel services (such as Airbnb) match you with prospective renters and take steps to ensure the safety of your abode.

This is called peer-to-peer consumerism, and its marketplaces include tool sharing (borrowing tools stored in a tool bank created by a community); couch surfing (booking accommodation with a local resident when you travel to a city); coworking (renting space in a workplace); cohousing (a community of private residences that includes shared facilities co‑owned by the residents); and social lending (loans without a bank as intermediary). 

One of the main ideas behind this new rentalism is the concept of idling capacity, which is the untapped economic and social value of underutilized assets. For example, most cars sit in a driveway or parking lot much of the time, so why shouldn’t owners use a social car sharing service (such as GetAround or ZimRide) to rent them out? More generally, this is known as peer-to-peer rental, and companies such as SnapGoods and Zilok are pairing people who temporarily need stuff and people who have that very stuff sitting idle.

Another aspect of collaborative consumption is to extend the idea of the time‑share, already widely used for resort properties and airplanes. A communal purchase gives people fractional ownership of other expensive items as well. Two similar ideas are the group coupon (also known as a groupon, after, which is a consumer discount that applies only if a minimum number of people sign up for the deal, and crowdfunding, which involves getting projects funded if similarly large numbers of people commit themselves. Kickstarter is the most popular such tool, hence the term Kickstartup for ventures funded by the site. Then there’s the carrotmob, where people gather en masse to support an environmentally friendly store by purchasing its products. (The word is derived from flash mob, discussed in these pages back in 2003.) My favorite communal purchase idea is cowpooling, purchasing a whole cow or side of beef from a local farmer.

The rise of collaborative consumption was probably impossible without social networks. According to Rachel Botsman, coauthor of What’s Mine Is Yours (HarperBusiness, 2010), collaborative ventures depend in part on social proof, the validation of a service or business that comes from seeing others use it and talk about its benefits. Collaborative consumption also depends hugely on the reputation trails we all leave behind us that say how trustworthy we are. So collaborative consumption offers a vision of an economy that is more open, more trusting, and more sustainable. Sounds good to me. Bring on the cowpools!

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