The Future of Sharing

Living comfortably has always, to some extent, relied on owning many goods. But this is becoming less and less the case. A new worldwide “sharing economy," composed of startup ventures whose products consumers rent or share instead of own, is blossoming across the globe.

Some sharing services are already quite famous: Zipcar, Craigslist, and AirBnB, for example. Others are very new on the scene and just starting to gain widespread recognition, such as the book-exchange Web site and the Lego-set-swap site Pleygo. All these services and more get the spotlight in Beth Buczynski’s new book Sharing is Good: How to Save Money, Time and Resources Through Collaborative Consumption (New Society, 2013).

Buczynski examines the collaborative-sharing phenomenon and sees big things in store for it in years ahead: Its myriad services, she says, give consumers everywhere opportunities to enjoy more creature comforts while spending less money and using fewer material goods. It all adds up to a big win for consumers, and for the environment, too—the more we share our existing consumer products, the less we need to mine raw materials and burn polluting energy sources to make more new products.

Buczynski discussed her book and her outlook on collaborative-sharing enterprises in this interview with THE FUTURIST. Rick Docksai, associate editor for THE FUTURIST and World Future Review, conducted the interview.

Beth Buczynski

THE FUTURIST: It’s been said that the millennial generation is much more inclined to collaboration than preceding generations—in professional settings, school settings, and even social settings, they get more done as groups. To what extent might this younger generation essentially be more primed for the sharing economy than its predecessors? And how far might succeeding generations go in continuing the collaborative and sharing trends?

Beth Buczynski: I don't know that millennials are more inclined to share. I think what many of these stats show is that they're more in tune with the technologies that are being used to elevate sharing behaviors like swapping, bartering, lending, etc. When I explain the concepts behind Sharing is Good to older people, they often identify immediately, and comment that these things used to be commonplace when they were younger, and "the world was a simpler place."

That being said, I think social and economic changes taking place among Gen Y are a big reason why collaborative consumption has had such a big impact in recent years. We're seeing a shift in values, a sense of connection with the global community, and a desire to take a stand against the status quo that may have worked for their grandparents, but isn't working for them.

Millennials no longer see material possessions as a vehicle for self-expression or independence the way their parents may have. They want the music, not the CD. They want the experience, the connection, the relationship, rather than the souvenir. Besides, they probably don't have anywhere to put it.

THE FUTURIST: While a lot of the sharing ventures that you describe in Sharing is Good emerged in North America, you also list some examples in Brazil, Japan, and western Europe.

My understanding is that these latter countries and regions have stronger traditions of sharing living space and amenities than Americans or (to some degree) Canadians. As you note in the book, sharing is something we already know how to do. Certain cultures seem to be more practiced at it, though, so maybe they are better prepared for this new paradigm. And maybe this new paradigm offers more individualistic cultures like the United States the chance to learn from these more sharing-accustomed cultures. What do you think?

Buczynski: I absolutely agree that other cultures, often those we would describe as less developed, are better prepared for the sharing economy. In some cases, they've always operated with a community mindset, where things are shared because it's the only way to survive. Sharing isn't a new concept, but here in the Western world we are definitely out of practice.

We're wary of "strangers" and have been taught from a young age to protect our things against theft or abuse from others. Collaborative consumption requires us to let go of this idea, forcing us to open our lives and assets up to idea that's foreign to many.

THE FUTURIST: As these sharing services expand, some traditional businesses are feeling the pinch. This article cites a taxicab company president, who says that car-sharing has cost him 30% of his business. I’d imagine hostels are losing customers, too, as AirBnB and Couchsurfing gain new users. How might traditional businesses such as these adapt to their new competition—or, might the sharing services do to many of them what Netflix did to Blockbuster?

Buczynski: Here's the thing: no industry likes to face its own obsolescence/inefficiency. I imagine that the radio industry reacted similarly when television started to gain in popularity--and there are probably dozens of other examples.

Change is a fact of life, and it's never comfortable. Every time the status quo butts heads with the sharing economy, it's proof that we've got outdated policies that need changing.

More than anything, I think these conflicts are going to force both collaborative businesses and established industries to better define themselves and their audience. Those who choose to travel via Airbnb are looking for an experience that hotels can't provide, and vice versa. Governments must address this at the policy level, so that both can coexist.

Yes, in some cases, sharing services are providing a better alternative, and it may drive the old paradigm out of business. But isn't demand always what's driven and shaped the marketplace? I think the reaction is so strong because it's people and not global corporations that stand to benefit this time around.

THE FUTURIST: The sharing economy, if it gains enough momentum, could hold big implications for the overall economy, too. Users of car-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, or room-sharing services like AirBnB, get great opportunities to earn side income. On the other hand, more swapping and sharing of goods might mean consumers buying fewer new goods, which is going to significantly cut revenues to all kinds of conventional businesses.

Also, more swapping of goods means less money changing hands, so consumer debt and inflation might shrink (both good), but so might the tax base (not so good). How likely is it that the sharing economy could get large enough to set any of these competing trends in motion? How do you see them playing out, if it does?

Buczynski: This is a really interesting question, in part because it implies that all these things—economic growth, consumption, tax revenue—are necessary for our survival on this planet. Really they're not. I know collaborative consumption is most often examined in terms of the existing economic system, but I would encourage everyone to think bigger.

Imagine shareable cities where nearly every system and industry is a cooperative one. Where resource consumption is determined by community need, and not by the desire to fill shareholder or government coffers. That might seem radical, but I really think it's possible. After all, there was a time when civilizations existed without currency, Wall Street, and shopping malls.

Now, to answer more directly: Product service systems—bike sharing, car sharing, Pleygo, Artsicle, text book rentals, etc.— slow our consumption, but they don't stop it entirely. These fleets of managed goods need to be replenished, so manufacturing is still supported, although at a different rate. Also, many peer to peer sharing platforms—Airbnb, TaskRabbit, RelayRides—have been wildly successful, and I assume they're paying taxes.

And what about those profiting from lending out their goods? Forbes estimates billions flowing through the sharing economy directly to individuals, all of it taxable. Not to mention that when people make money this way, they tend to spend it in their community, which bolsters the local economy. In sum, I guess my prediction will be that when sharing gets big enough—and I predict that it will—we'll learn how to adapt.

THE FUTURIST: Most economists and ecologists expect the world to consume steadily rising volumes of mass materials and energy as this century wears on, in part because of growing wealth in developing countries, e.g., huge new populations of car buyers, mobile phone users, home buyers, etc. What help might the collaborative consumption trends that you describe be in softening the impacts of some of this and making the overall consumption growth more manageable?

Buczynski: One of the most important concepts of the sharing economy is the idea of access instead of ownership. For a long time, we've preached that the only way to live an eco-friendly life is to go without, or to make massive changes like installing solar or going car-free, which just aren't possible for everyone. Sharing increases access to the things we want and need, without the burden—environmental and otherwise—of ownership. Sharing extends the lifecycle of goods we used to use for five minutes and then put on a shelf or, worse, throw away. It's also about forcing manufacturers to change their model, from one of built-in obsolescence to designing products that are meant to be shared, repaired, and shared again.

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