Collaborative consumption – what it is and why it matters to Labour

by Jonathan Todd

There is a piece of land registered on Landshare in every postcode in the UK. If you stacked every film shipped weekly by Netflix in a single pile, it would be taller than Mount Everest. The value of goods traded annually on ebay is more than the GDP of 125 countries. Bike sharing is the fastest-growing form of transportation in the world.

Something is going on here. And Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers think they know what it is: collaborative consumption. Defenders of the big society have latched on to the decentralised, networked mega-trend that Botsman and Rogers describe in their book, “what’s mine is yours – how collaborative consumption is changing the way we live.”

After Botsman gave a version of her stump speech at the RSA last month, I asked whether this trend contains any lessons for Labour. She was, understandably, reticent to politicise her baby. The big society shouldn’t be owned by any political party, nor should collaborative consumption, she told me.

Of course, she’s right. The civic institutions that are supposed to make up the big society were around long before David Cameron tried to destroy them. And collaborative consumption is too nebulous a concept for any politician to convincingly declare it their passion. I’m not even sure that it adds up to a unified idea. There are, however, elements of Botsman and Rogers’ argument that hit upon some truths that Labour should absorb.

They claim that people are sharing again and creating three distinct kinds of consumption: product service systems (PSS), redistribution markets and collaborative lifestyles. Both what we consume and how we consume are changed by these systems. But do not worry. We are not all turning into hippies. Self-interest remains the prime driver, with improved social outcomes a mere by by-product.

Netflix is a popular PSS model because people want to watch films, not collect DVD boxes. Access is the privilege; ownership is the burden. As Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, another PSS variant, says: “It’s the car your mother said you could never have. When you are not using it, it is someone else’s problem, and who cares”. As well as being more fun, access tends to reduce carbon emissions. Think of the carbon saved from all the DVD boxes not manufactured for Netflixites and cars un-owned by Zipsters.

Ebay, freecycle and craigslist are well-known illustrations of redistribution markets. It is the desire to buy, sell and swap used goods which creates these markets. But, as this occurs, carbon is saved that would otherwise be emitted in manufacturing new goods. These markets also build trust amongst strangers, because market participants know that their behaviour today will affect their ability to trade tomorrow. Ebay buyers, for example, want to buy from sellers with positive feedback ratings, so negative ratings limit the ability of sellers to trade.

TimeBanks USA, an enabler of collaborative lifestyles, has been described by its founder as “a time machine taking us back to an age when we knew each other and trusted one another”. Time banks exist all over the world and all apply the same principle. For every hour you spend doing something valued by someone in your community (cleaning their gutters)  you earn a credit to be banked at an online portal and spent on things you value (Spanish lessons). Participants are incentivised by accessing something they want. But 72% of time bankers report that participation gives them a stronger sense of community.

Irrespective of the collaborative consumption model, people are sharing because it serves their self-interest. Our bread should never depend on the benevolence of bakers. Enhanced sustainability, trust and community spirit can, however, be achieved, as people follow their self-interests through consuming collaboratively. This isn’t to say that people are completely uninterested in these social outcomes, as the MyBO activity tracker illustrates.

This tracker was designed by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook. He only works on projects that will have “far-reaching social and life-changing impact but that are also fun, modern and smart”. Those who opened trackers shared a belief in a particular outcome: the election of Obama as US President. But they also wanted the fun of the interactive game that was enabled by the tracker. The more fun they had the more campaigning they did. If we want to change the world, we may not succeed unless we make the journey fun, modern and smart (does this sound like your latest Labour party meeting)? Total abstinence and a good filing system were never the right signposts.

Labour is increasingly winning the argument that the big society cannot fill the gaps left by the government’s cuts. We are right to stress that it isn’t an either-or choice between state and society, but a question of what state and society can achieve together. However, to fully win this argument we need to paint a more vivid picture of the kind of reformed state we favour.

Such a state would harness the tools of collaborative consumption and direct them towards our Labour goals. Libraries could incorporate hubs for time banks. Transport authority websites might put driving commuters in touch with others making the same commute and interested in car sharing. Sure starts could host markets for exchanging used children’s clothes and toys. Local authorities might open up public land to community groups through Landshare.

Many small changes of this sort will be required to make the state fun, modern and smart.

Jonathan Todd is Uncut’s economic columnist.

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