Is collaboration the answer to sustainable consumption?

Collaborative consumption might just be the way to sustainable consumption. It requires a shift in values but that’s not to say it can’t happen. There are several cases to mention, think of ebay but also local civil society initiatives, where people successfully reduce carbon emissions by consuming less. Global Action Plan is conducting an action-based research to identify its opportunities and obstacles.

Trewin Restorick is the chief executive of environmental advisory body Global Action Plan. The article first appeared at his blog Trewin Says. This article was found on businessgreen.com.

One of the fundamental challenges constantly facing the environmental movement is the disconnection between the scale of the problem and the solutions proposed. Are we really surprised at public apathy when on the one hand we talk about climate change as the biggest challenge facing humanity whilst on the other we recommend unplugging mobile phone chargers?

Clearly more fundamental change is required if we are to get anywhere near an 80 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050. Collaborative consumption may be one of the radical changes required. The central ambition of collaborative consumption is to switch consumer demand away from products to services. As a pioneer of the idea, Rachel Botsman notes – ‘it is the concept that we don’t want the drill, but the hole in the wall’.

Intellectually, collaboration appears to be a logical and economically feasible way to deliver sustainable consumption but is it ever likely to happen and should businesses view it as an opportunity or threat?

Modern community

Collaborative community brings to mind ideological stories where people live happily in unified neighborhoods, sharing food and possessions without bolted doors and alarmed cat flaps. This storybook image is far removed from the reality of modern life. Over the past few decades we have seen a shift in values. Many societies now appear to define success by their possessions. We buy when we want, replace rather than repair and set status symbols through our latest car or phone.

Our fast pace of life and long working hours distance us from our communities. Trust is increasingly limited to family, friends and perhaps immediate neighbours. This modern lifestyle creates barriers which hinder collaborative consumption, but are they insurmountable?

For six years, Ebay exchange marketplace has demonstrated it is possible to build trust between strangers using rating scores, allowing people to decide who can be trusted in a fair deal. Partly thanks to their ground-breaking model, on-line collaborative consumption is already thriving. Freecycle has close to 2.5 million members, each swapping things they don’t want for things they need, reducing waste sent to landfill and lessening demands for more manufacturing. Landshare has gained 55,000 members who are matched to work across communities, sharing land and growing food. Ecomodo was recently launched as a platform for people to lend and borrow belongings for free or at a cost.

This high level of on-line collaboration is not matched in physical communities where possible benefits are far greater. In this context, Energise Barnet a community initiative run by locals is in the process of establishing buying groups for solar energy systems, solid wall insulation, condensing boilers and other high cost energy efficiency measures. The bigger the buying groups, the bigger the savings and the bigger the reduction in carbon emissions. Barnet has one of the highest CO2 emissions of all London boroughs, with a large proportion coming from domestic use. Energise Barnet will help property owners reduce carbon emissions, save money, and generate a potential return on investment for solar PV of 10 per cent per annum or more.

Global Action Plan is keen to explore the concept of collaborative consumption further. Thanks to funding recently received from the Tellus Mater Foundation we will be working with a community taking them on a journey to explore just how far they are willing to change their behavior with the economic and social benefits of sharing more, and consuming less. The action-based research will set out to identify opportunities and obstacles in collaborative consumption, including how collaboration could support existing local business that may be struggling under the economic climate.

A business opportunity

If collaborative consumption does take off it will be interesting to see how businesses react. Will they resist or embrace the concept taking the opportunity to reinvent themselves and establish a profitable business model based around sustainable consumption that works.

The early indications are that some are beginning to think about the idea. B&Q is one company that is starting to ask itself fundamental questions about its business model, wondering whether it is sustainable to continually sell people power drills, mowers and other equipment that is infrequently used. It will be intriguing to see how far they progress down this route and whether they can create a financially sustainable solution where people buy, use and share their products differently.

Source: businessGreen, Augustus 2011

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