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Interview: Rachel Botsman on sharing cars, gardens and money—and the evolution of “collaborative consumption”

   /   Oct 7th, 2010Interviews, Photos & Videos

Rachel Botsman is fascinated with our increasing desire to share, barter, and swap and our decreasing need for consumption of material goods. She began noticing these trends while working on brand-building, consumerism and social change at the Clinton Global Initiative, the United Nations and General Electric. In her new book, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, Botsman looks at how these shifting modes of consumerism are affecting the future of big business as well as what’s happening in our own backyards. Botsman will be speaking about her work at the Feast Conference in New York City on October 15. And for a quick preview of her work, check out the video after the jump.

Dowser: Can you spell out some specific examples that explain the concept of ‘collaborative consumption’?
Botsman: Collaborative Consumption is technology enabling old market behaviors so that village trading marketplaces are being reinvented in ways that were never possible before. It’s a fascination with the mechanics of consumerism, digital sharing and sharing culture that led to this idea.

What’s happening is that old consumer behaviors like bartering, trading, and lending are being reinvented through the Facebook-age. Look at Zipcars, bike-sharing schemes like B-cycle or modern day cooperatives, whether it’s community supported agriculture or Etsy Labs, as well as eBay or Craigslist.

Why do you think this is catching on now?
There is a massive resurgence of community, both in the virtual and real world.  It’s a combination of the financial crisis and pressing environmental concerns, but also realizing that we need to turn to each other once again. Volunteering rates are through the roof, cooking and sewing classes are doing a roaring trade, parks are full, churches are reporting that people are coming back—all around, we are seeing people realize the importance of community. Linked to that is a torrent of social networks that create an infrastructure for us to share and collaborate in ways that have never been possible before.

A lot of these ideas are very old. Car-pooling and car sharing have been around since the ‘50s in Switzerland. Can you imagine the logistics of organizing five cars?  Now we can locate anything anyone, anywhere, anytime, from a small device in our hand.

With people increasingly looking to lending, swapping, and car sharing, are you seeing less of an interest in amassing material goods?
People are starting to think about how they spend money, and think, ‘Do the experiences make me happier than buying stuff?’ I don’t think it’s necessarily around penny-pinching.  It’s deeper than that. It is tied to identity and it’s also tied to dematerialization.

We’re growing up with a generation that doesn’t want stuff; they want or need to experience how it feels. We don’t actually want a CD; we want the music it plays. We don’t want an answering machine; we want the message it says.

Are there new tools or businesses you’re using that fall under this category and position the experience over the object?
When I first moved to Sydney [Australia], everyone said I had to buy a car. But we have five GoGet [car share stations] within two minutes walking distance from our house. So I think we save quite a lot of money and we save a lot of time because we don’t have any of the hassle of parking.

I also started investing through social lending schemes like Zopa. I had £1000 sitting in my bank in the U.K., and I thought, this is crazy, I can get a return rate of 9.5% if I start doing social lending.  There is also one in the U.S. called Lending Club.

How do you see the movement around collaborative consumption unfolding?  It seems like it has potential on a more localized level as well as on a larger scale.
A beautiful thing about collaborative consumption is that it can happen on a very hyper local level in neighborhoods and really impact change—anyone who wants to start their own bike sharing scheme, community garden, or toy lending library. They don’t need a lot to get it going, so I want to help them get the resources and share the best practices that I’ve seen.

But for larger established companies, it can be a much more involved process.
I want to help everyone—from [assisting] start-ups that are becoming the darlings of the venture capital world to big corporations that are incorporating this into their business model.  For example, why can’t Zappos become the ultimate shoe-swap trading platform or repair shoe service platform, or Bank of America have a peer-to-peer lending arm? I would like to help on the business level and also on the local changemaker level.

With the numerous car sharing businesses and models that have emerged over the past few years, the automotive industry seems like a good place to see how they’re adapting to this changing mindset.
Bill Ford said, ‘We are no longer in the business of cars. We are in the business of mobility.’  Companies are saying, ‘Our model can no longer be about pushing and selling more and more stuff.’ Big companies are realizing that the way they define their sector and the way they’ve made money is actually becoming pretty obsolete.

Daimler, and Peugeot, they’ve now launched car-sharing schemes. Daimler is going into ride sharing programs. Companies think, ‘If we can get the technology right for people to share a car, then can we actually become technology companies to share other products?’ It’s redefining the way they are thinking about their business.

Are there any other examples of note that might not be on our radar?
One of my favorite examples is Landshare in the U.K..  There are some [similar organizations] in the U.S. called Shared Earth and Sharing Back Garden. Landshare is based on the idea that lots of people now want to grow their own food, but they don’t have space in their back garden.  It functions like a garden dating agency, matching someone with a back garden with someone who wants to grow their own food.

My dad started to do Landshare.  For him, it is not about the food that he grows, but that all the kids and community members come around. He has lived in this neighborhood for 18 years and it is the first time he knows who lives on the street.

So what does that do?  My dad is a very classic baby boomer; it makes him now more open to sharing other things. By giving him something he’s comfortable with, and building that little web of relationships, he can now escalate up into different forms of collaborative consumption.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Dowser is a media partner of the Feast Conference.

Picture: Courtesy of Rachel Botsman

5 Responses

  1. Michael Wecker says:

    I agree that there has indeed been a big shift from the time when neighbors knew each other to our generation in which we tend to be somewhat isolated from our community. This problem seemed to start in the online world when communities became virtual. From chat rooms and blogs to Twitter and Facebook to World of Warcraft and Second Life, people have turned away from “traditional” relationships to “virtual” relationships. I’m not saying this is all bad, but it has created a nation where we no longer know our neighbors and that, I believe, is having a detrimental effect on our society.

    If we don’t know our neighbors our sense of belonging diminishes. We don’t feel the same obligation to care for each other as we would if our neighborhoods were our source of interaction.

    It is good to see a move back to local communities, from churches to farmers markets. Programs that further this movement have my full support.

    Thanks for the great article!!

  2. I highly recommend Rachel’s book. One the cool things about it is the thorough but engaging analysis of hyperconsumption which is a great set up for explaining collaborative consumption.

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