Participation in the sharing economy has picked up since the market economy went south, with companies like ZipCar and Airbnb reporting impressive growth in their memberships. Experts and analysts point to numerous reasons for the heightened interest in sharing goods, among them cash concerns, a desire for a greater sense of community, and shifting definitions of the meaning of prosperity. Many environmentalists are hopeful the activity indicates that consciousness about the need to consume more sustainably is finally taking root in the mainstream (although, as this article points out, even the shared economy can be leveraged for less-than-green behaviors).
The drivers this movement, however, are arguably less important than its effects. Sharing goods collaboratively reinforces the spirit of trust and, well, collaboration. Participants, who for the most part are either loaning out their own possessions or paying for the use of what they expect will be decent- to high-quality goods and services, undergo exercises in good faith with each transaction. Being part of the sharing service means being inducted into a particular mindset or culture, which can be adopted by the mainstream and lead to greater collaborative schemes. This trickle to the mainstream can and does occur. Take as an example Paris, which launched a car sharing service last week, despite the fact that many people didn’t think its first sharing scheme—for bikes in 2007—would gel with the people at all.
There are of course compelling arguments about the environmental effects of shared goods, as well. One lawnmower per neighborhood instead of ten or twenty could save a lot of raw materials, points out Cameron Tonkinwise, Associate Dean of Sustainability at Parsons the New School for Design.
But the most significant effect with regard to the troubled economy is the business opportunity shared consumption has opened for entrepreneurs. A slew of startups eager to ride the wave of the movement have launched over the past few years, offering everything from baby clothes to solar- and man-power. That’s good news for consumers who are looking to shift our consumption paradigm, and since small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy, it’s good for the marketplace.
Bottom line: The sharing economy is one way in which our economy can grow in a new direction. Its environmental, community-building, and job-creating effects present enormous opportunity for reshaping traditional consumption habits and business models.