Collaborative Ways of Living and Consuming

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.

References
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

12 thoughts on “Collaborative Ways of Living and Consuming”

  1. The concept of ‘lagom’ and the swedish culture definitely seems good for collaborative sharing BUT how about Swedish people’s unwillingness to “disturb” someone else. It’s not often a Swede goes to the neighbour to borrow some sugar for baking when needed because they feel they intrude and disturb others. Seems like this might be a hurdle in collaborative sharing.

  2. Great point, Collentine, this is definitely a factor to take into consideration. I wonder whether this was the case in the Swedish society some 100 years back, when people were poor and needed each other to survive, not least the harsh climate.
    Thanks, Kate, for the link, I should also provide a link to the online community sharing examples of collaborative consumption: http://spread2050.ning.com/

  3. Hi Oksana,
    Great and relevant post! While the Swedish culture is in many ways much different from that in my native Finland, I do believe that those characteristics of the Swedish culture that are conducive to collaborative consumption are very similar in Finland. After all, historically, the Nordics have had to deal with similar harsh conditions to survive which has led to some of the societal practices you describe. In addition, due to our centuries of prior common political history, the Finns are used to adopting ideas developed in Sweden. The point is that the ideas presented are equally relevant and implementable in Finland as they would probably be elsewhere in the northernmost Europe. Again, a great post and thanks for sharing.

  4. A very relevant post, Oksana, and, of course, Sweden is a great example for all others in the field. I was naturally thinking of Eastern Europe, and trends and patterns of behaviour in my native Ukraine. I guess it is true that after the collapse of Soviet Union people rather shifted from communal/collaborative patterns of consumption to individual ones as the latter were perceived as ‘right’ and ‘more respected’ by the society. For example, it is perceived as ‘important’/‘necessary’ to own a washing machine or a car just because it is convenient and because only then one associates oneself with being ‘modern enough’.
    However, there are also interesting signs of collaborative consumption, which (I would claim) are driven by other factors than observed in the West. As an example, a couple of years ago I participated in sharing a car with three other people in one of the sleeping districts in Kyiv to get myself delivered to the metro station. At that time there was a lack of public buses in the city, and minibuses ran by private companies could barely sustain the amount of people getting on them, so once loaded they would pass the bus stop without collecting desperate passengers. Clearly all these passengers needed to reach the metro station, which was not located within the walking distance. It was the time when the principles of people’s self-organisation and collaborative consumption stepped in. Every morning one could find a separate queue of people next to the bus stop. A private car driver with empty car would stop there to collect 3-4 passengers and get them delivered to the metro station. The whole scheme impressed me with its perfectly organised and somewhat routine management. The car would stop, the people would get in, they would pay the seemed-to-be-established fare to the driver, the driver would drop the passengers at the metro station – all without uttering a word… This system sustained for quite a while until about a year after the new, comfortable and quite regularly running city buses were introduced on the route by Kyiv authorities.

  5. Hi, Oksana! Thank you for interesting post and inspiring examples of collaborative consumption schemes in Sweden! I would like to share some experiences of my friends and neighbors in similar types of initiatives. Some of my friends who posses land allotments here in Malmö decided to grow different types of veggies and herbs and then exchange their yield with each other. As result they are supplied with locally grown fresh products during all summer.
    In the house where I live, people have organized the cycling pool. There were 5 old bicycles which noone where using. Guys from the house have got together and restored them. Now people who don’t have private bicycles can borrow it for free when needed. So do I take it sometimes just to enjoy cycling or go shopping not to carry heavy bags on my own :)

  6. Great examples, guys, and good reflections, Yyri! It is hard to estimate the scale of these activities, but i really wonder how businesses see on this development: do they feel the need to step in and take over to make money out of these services and how would people feel about such development… Lots to investigate!

  7. Hello, Oksana. Thanks for the post, I have been interested in collaborative consumption for some time now and it’s always a pleasure to read what our IIIEE friends are doing.
    I work as a researcher at Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) in Canada (www.sig.uwaterloo.ca) that deals a lot with social innovation. Over time, I realized that this term is interpreted in many different ways. For example, if somebody calls something a social innovation, the other says that it’s just an improvement. WISIR defines social innovation as something that profoundly changes current structures, resource and authority flows. In other words, it adopts quite a radical definition. I was curious what meaning do you put into “social innovation”, especially in relation to collaborative consumption.
    For me, collaborative consumption is fascinating and IS social innovation because it alters the very notion of consumption. I think that it touches the root of the problem – we don’t need to own all that staff, we can just use it without owning it.
    As for the previous point about post-soviet countries, I agree that there is the trend of buying more products not only because of their utility, but because of their social value. Unfortunately, often you are judged by the diversity and cost of your wardrobe than your professional and personal qualities. (This deals with another concept of my interest – “conspicuous consumption” [Veblen’s theory of the leisure class]). So the question is, how can we introduce collaborative consumption practices in the societies were the trend is to consume more mainly in order to show off one’s social status?

  8. Good point Nino, thanks for your contribution. I have thought about this as well, also because many countries copy the materialistic lifestyles from the advanced economies. Therefore, I think the change should come from the advanced economies, within which people do define themselves through material posessions. So one thing to start working on is to promote less-materialistic status symbols, e.g. belonging to social networks, clubs and societies; going to theatre and similar. Then as with everything else, there are structural/institutional issues to be overcome. For example, when we come to borrow some money from banks, our credibility is judged by how much staff we own. The discussion on collaborative consumption predicts that perhaps in the future what will be judged on is the size of your social networks, the recommendations and feedback you have received from people you had some communication or exchange with, which would show the bank that you are a credible client. But much work still remains on finding alternative ways of expressing ourselves. Good that anyone can contribute to it :-)

  9. I fully agree on that we express ourselves today through what we consume, and that we must have that in mind when thinking about collaborative consumption. 

    Some collcon services that rent out clothes (klädoteket malmö och umeå klädbibliotek) deal with this through underlining the possibilities of expressing oneself through being a member of the service. Others, like Zipcar, promotes the brand as hip and cool so people would want to have a Zipcar compared to an ordinary car (if I understood them correctly). I agree with Botsman who says that we need to make sharing hip and cool, as I think that making sharing hip is probably one way to change consumption patterns.So, in my view, the question is how we can create sharing services that are hip, cool and easy to use that makes people choose those services before visiting a store and buying first-hand goods.

    (I’m a student in cognitive science at Linköping University, where I do my master’s thesis on collaborative consumption. I’m looking at which collcon services there are today in Sweden and comparing this to what “sharing needs” people have today. Among other things I’ve created a website where you can post and share examples and ideas of collaborative consumption – http://ateranvand.sgnl.se/)

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