Collaborative consumption on the rise around the world as experts debate how large the practice will grow

Published: Friday, Nov. 16 2012 11:40 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY – With three children under the age of 4, Lindsay Evans of Milwaukee has her hands full, oftentimes in the most literal sense. Just keeping her kids clothed is nothing short of a production, both logistically and financially.

“Kids grow fast,” says Evans, who quit work to stay at home with her children. “With three, I can’t afford to buy all of them brand-new clothes that they’re going to outgrow in six months.”

So when a friend introduced Evans to thredUP six months ago, it sounded like a godsend. ThredUP, an online consignment store, enables families to buy and sell secondhand children’s clothing without having to click kids into car seats or push doublewide strollers past thrift-store racks. It’s also part of a growing movement called collaborative consumption, sometimes also referred to as the sharing economy.

Last year, Time Magazine named collaborative consumption one of the 10 ideas that will change the world. Rachel Botsman, whom the Wall Street Journal has called “the doyenne of the movement,” is on the record saying, “I really believe the Collaborative Revolution could be as big as the Industrial Revolution.” She predicts the sharing economy will grow to more than $100 billion.

With no shortage of promoters, some are wondering what lies behind, and beyond, the hype.

New again

Collaborative consumption is nothing new, of course. From ski swaps to laundromats, Americans have been sharing, bartering, renting and trading since John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence with a borrowed pen. However, technology has enabled peer-to-peer exchanges to take place on a much broader scale. Think of that American institution, the garage sale. Ten or 15 years ago, it occurred outside with perhaps 50 neighbors in a front yard on a sunny Saturday morning. Thanks to Craigslist, Ebay and other similar websites, garage sales now occur everyday, rain or shine, with potentially thousands of people from all over a city, or even country, viewing pictures and descriptions of secondhand goods online.

Other shared-access applications abound. Want to rent out your car or borrow someone else’s? For that, there’s RelayRides. Going on vacation and want to stay among locals? How about Airbnb (as in, “air bed and breakfast”)? In fact, you can also use the website to rent out your own house while you’re gone. A new sharing model seems to sprout up each week, whether it’s for crowd funding startups, sharing workspace or splitting garden plots.

The mother of (re-)invention

Some argue the increase in sharing is due mostly to the poor economy. Scarred credit histories, unemployment and the rising costs of food, education, cell phones and transportation are forcing some to put off ownership of items they might otherwise have purchased by now.

Fleura Bardhi, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University, believes that participation in the sharing economy “is basically a temporary stage in people’s lives.” Bardhi studies collaborative consumption and recently completed a study on the users of Zipcar, a national car-sharing company based in Cambridge, Mass.

“The metaphor a lot of these people use for ownership is marriage,” she says, "while the metaphor they use for sharing is dating. They’re at a stage in their lives where they don’t have to commit. They all said, ‘Once I settle down then I’m buying my own car. There’s nothing like having your own car.’”

However, the real motivation goes beyond thrift, in Bardhi’s opinion. The marketing of shared-access as “cool” (Rachel Botsman has called it “more hip than hippie”) enables young people to use it as an “identity play” within the context of the consumer society.

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