By Beth Buczynski
As I write this, I’m sitting at a small kitchen table in Chattanooga. An early fall breeze wafts in through the open window, carrying the sounds of chirping birds and buzzing cicadas. It may feel like home, but it’s not. This apartment isn’t mine. In fact, I’ve never even met the owner.
I’m in town for a journalism conference, and rather than pay the high price of a traditional hotel room, my colleague and I rented this place through an online marketplace called Airbnb. For less than half of what the hotel wanted, we got this breezy one bedroom apartment with a full kitchen. The owner got a few days of rent without the hassle of finding a long-term lessee. Wins all around.
Airbnb is part of a new trend called the “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption.” It’s taking age-old ideas like renting, bartering and swapping and giving them a 21st-century makeover using Internet technologies. Now, instead of being limited to our neighbors, we can share things with people all over the world.
My generation, which loves technology but doesn’t have a lot of money or space for the collection of material possessions, has embraced the sharing lifestyle. We don’t need to own the CD; we just want to listen to the music. We don’t need to buy the suit; we just want to wear it for a few hours.
The sharing economy represents a new way of living, in which access is valued over ownership, experiences are more important than material possessions and “mine” becomes “ours,” so everyone’s needs can be met with less waste. Although it may be a no-brainer for college students and young professionals searching for their place in the world, sharing isn’t limited by youth.
As I discovered while writing my first book, Sharing is Good, economies built on sharing go back to the earliest human civilizations. We’re actually biologically hard-wired to cooperate, and it’s only relatively recently that we’ve developed a preference for competition instead of collaboration. Spurred on by the recession, many of us have had to think long and hard about what’s important in life. There’s only so much we can do without. For the rest, we have to get creative.
While writing Sharing is Good, I met a retiree earning hundreds a month by renting out her bright red Volkswagen Beetle through a car-sharing company called Getaround. I also discovered fashionistas who enjoy new clothes on a monthly basis through the fashion-sharing scheme Rent The Runway, kids who enjoy new toys (without amassing clutter) through online toy rental companies like BabyPlays and Pleygo, and homeowners who gain access to loads of fresh produce by sharing their yard with gardening enthusiasts who lack a plot of land.
Today, students enrolled at UT Knoxville have access to a variety of sharing programs that make life easier and more affordable. CycleUshare, the nation’s first fully automated electric bicycle sharing system, is located right on campus.
Collaborative consumption also is giving birth to a new generation of companies that make sharing easier and safe, while still making a profit and creating jobs. Just look at the incredible success of Kickstarter, a crowd-funding company that helps artists and innovators raise nontraditional capital for projects. Or Skillshare, a Web community that makes it possible to share your skills in the global classroom. The flexible schedule courses range from baking cupcakes to designing a website, and people are signing up in droves.
All of this growth, re-connection, and access to new experiences, and it’s based on a concept most of us learn in kindergarten—sharing. Now, before I buy or throw something away, I ask myself if I could share it instead. The answer is usually just a click away, and instead of feeling despondent, I feel empowered. Instead of having to miss the conference because I couldn’t afford the hotel, I’m sitting here, lounging in my low-cost living room. And it really is good.
Beth Buczynski (Knoxville ‘04) is a sustainable living blogger and the author of Sharing is Good, a practical guide to the emerging sharing economy. Learn more at www.sharingisgoodbook.com or follow @TheSharingBook on Twitter