This is a guest post by Oksana Mont, professor in sustainable consumption and production at Lund University. Mont blogs on oksanamont.blogspot.com and on sustainableretail.blogspot.com. Links to references mentioned in the text can be found at the bottom of this post.
An opportunity for Sweden? A new twist on an old Swedish tradition?
Collaborative Consumption is becoming a buzz word of social innovation (Botsman and Rogers 2010). It is a name for a way of consuming where people share their possessions with other people while they are not using them, through various types of (mostly informal) social networks. It can be seen as a revival of our traditional ways of living in social groups where sharing and lending, as well as bartering and swapping, was a natural part of everyday life.
People used to exchange both products and services and to come together to fulfil the needs of individual members of the community, such as building a house for a member of a community. The primary idea of collaborative consumption is based on the notion that instead of individual product ownership, services and skills are exchanged or sold (Rifkin 2000; Gansky 2010). It is an extension of existing well-known concepts e.g. libraries, laundromats, car rental companies, families and friends passing on children’s clothes, etc. Schemes of collaborative consumption can be organised by private people or companies, by local authorities, NGOs, communities or social enterprises.
Never let your clothes go out of style
In modern society, examples of collaborative consumption can be found in different sectors and for different products. For example, an average European car is only used for 29 minutes a day and sits unused for the remaining 23.5 hours! There are more and more schemes springing up to make use of this wasted resource in different ways, including leasing, pooling, sharing, switching, etc. and there is a growing number of examples of such schemes: SunFleet, Zipcar, and many more.
Another example is from the do-it-yourself sector: most people own a variety of DIY and home improvement tools that are rarely used and could easily be shared, leading to a reduction in life cycle environmental impacts (Mont 2004).
There are also not many occasions in the life of ordinary working women that require cocktail/ball dresses, fancy shoes and small fabulous bags, therefore it makes more sense to rent these items for specific occasions rather then buying them and having them sit in the wardrobe and go out of style, while so many negative environmental and social impacts are created to produce them, see e.g. kladbyte.se.
Swapping events and bartering networks
In addition to products and their idling capacity, people also possess many skills and would like to share them or trade them with others, at the same time better utilising their life experiences and capabilities, extending their social network and learning from others, e.g. ourgoods.org. People are also curious creatures and are easily bored; having the same art on the walls or sport equipment at home easily becomes boring after several months and therefore people self-organise swapping events and bartering networks, e.g. this Trendhunter post: Designer Peter Viksten’s Gives Away Free Art in Sweden
The concept of “lagom” makes Sweden fertile ground
In my opinion, Sweden is fertile ground for these types of collaborative networks and ways of living and consuming, as there is a tradition of modesty, the long-standing cooperative movement, many kinds of associations, such as book clubs and a certain tradition of volunteering. Some of the prevalent norms in Swedish society enhance the potential for such sharing schemes. Examples of this include the concept of “lagom” (just enough or with moderation), the acceptance of the notion of collective good and the tradition of non-conflict. The concept of a common good originates from early religious postulates and implied that it was sinful to strive for more than satisfaction of individual needs.
Throughout Swedish history, there was a pressure on more successful people to share some of their wealth with less fortunate community members. In modern times, the 70 years of rule of the socio-democrats in Sweden further embedded this tradition of solidarity. These historical events have greatly contributed to the evolution of collectivism and the acceptance of community-based forms of living in contemporary Swedish society. For example, a large proportion of the Swedish population lives in housing associations that provide a natural unit for organising sharing, swapping and exchange networks. These associations already provide a nurturing ground for washing centres (tvättstugor), DIY sharing systems, hobby rooms and gardening groups (Mont 2004). Thus, there are also infrastructural factors conducive to collaborative consumption.
Towards a collaborative economy
Such values and infrastructures should provide a better chance for collaborative networks and sharing systems to be embedded into everyday choices and might lead to higher acceptance than in cultures with values based on possessive individualism. There are many interesting research questions regarding these schemes. One of the unexplored questions is whether these examples of sharing networks are a sufficient step towards more sustainable lifestyles, or whether steps towards simplifying and dematerialising our lifestyles even further are needed. Another question is whether the current policy climate is supportive of / enabling such schemes or serves as a barrier, and what policy mechanisms are needed to provide opportunity for people to participate in sustainable social innovation. The last question is what implications these schemes have for mainstream businesses, i.e. is it a threat, an opportunity to learn and innovate not only products, but also services, is this a way towards a collaborative economy where companies provide experiences to communities of prosumers who actively participate in creating experiences for themselves and others?
There is room for both research and everyday action for everybody: we can choose to actively join one of these networks or establish a new one. Why not to follow an example of Netcycler?
Feel free to post comments, ideas or experiences from Swedish and other examples of collaborative consumption! You can contact Oksana Mont on linkedin.com/in/oksanamont.
Botsman, R. and R. Rogers (2010). What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, HarperBusiness. (on Google Books)
European Commission (2008). Eurobarometer 69. 1. Values of Europeans. Brussels, TNS Opinion & Social: 140. (pdf)
Gansky, L. (2010). The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, Portfolio Hardcover. (on Google Books)
Mont, O. (2004). Product-service systems: Panacea or myth? IIIEE. Lund, Lund University: 259. (pdf)
Mont, O. (2004). “Reducing life cycle environmental impacts through systems of joint use.” Special issue on “Life Cycle Management” of Greener Management International Spring(45): 63-77. (record on Lund University’s database)
Rifkin, J. (2000). The Age of Access. New York, Tarcher/Putnam. (on Google Books)
Stockenström, G. (2001). “Swedish Myths About Money.” American Behavioral Scientist 45(2): 240-257. (abstract)
Image credit: plindberg CC:BY