Published on Sustainable Cities

Collaborative consumption – a trend for the young, the hip, the urban

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ImageMoving from California to Washington DC, I did not expect to find revolution; but I have. Fellow city-dwellers are overthrowing old models of consumption (through which their cities became extractors and importers of natural resources and exporters of waste products) by simply changing their habits. One by one, urban citizens are choosing collaborative consumption instead, to save money, resources, and time.

Though sharing is not new – in fact, historically, people lived and consumed resources in groups – it is an innovation in the modern city. A diverse set of sharing mechanisms has sprouted – for-profit, non-profit, informal, and formal – many of which use the web to match supply and demand.

Instead of purchasing cars, consumers are using car-sharing companies (like Zipcar), which allow them to rent vehicles by the hour, or stopping by to get a ride from the Casual Carpool in San Francisco or the Slug Line in Washington DC, two informal, citizen-organized carpool sites that match car-free commuters with drivers looking to enter High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes and save on toll fares.

Young professional men need not invest in fashion’s whim; they can rent a tie from the Tie Society. This start-up, founded in Washington DC, delivers selected ties to consumers’ doors; consumers are free to return or exchange the ties at any time. For those seeking to build or repair, tool lending libraries offer the opportunity to check out drills, saws, and hammers for a few days, and return them, free of charge. And in my favorite example, Heritage Lawn Mowing in New York rents sheep out to residents who have yards, offering natural lawn mowing and fertilizing services for $1/sheep/ day, though the company accepts barter for payment as well.

Parents of young children may use Spark Box to rent a box of age-appropriate, educational, and sanitized toys, which they may return when the child is ready for a new challenge. Craigslist allows city residents to exchange, buy, and sell used items locally, between strangers; clothing swaps and garage sales allow for the same functions, but with friends and neighbors.

But collaborative consumption is not confined to reducing the quantity of objects purchased – it can also be a lifestyle choice. Living cooperatively comes in many flavors – intentional communities, co-housing, kibbutzes, communes – but at its core, it gathers like-minded individuals to share meals, chores, and a home. Universities host student co-operatives, but so do regular neighborhoods. The Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington DC, for example, has a 40+ year history of collective houses, many having sprouted in the idealist 1960s.

My boyfriend and I live in a cooperative house in Washington, and we chose to do so for the environmental benefits of sharing (we only need one refrigerator/dining room table/house for 6 people), and for the community that sharing builds. Cooking for each other – we each cook once per week for the house (except for one person who does the grocery shopping) – saves us time in the kitchen and ensures quality meals every night, and eating together gives us quality time with friends every day.

These lifestyle choices are not the norm – in fact, more Americans than ever are living alone – but they offer an alternative mode of consumption and living. Modes of collaborative consumption can be found outside the home too. Airbnb and couch surfing allow travelers to stay in locals’ homes, crashing on a couch or in a spare bedroom, wherever they travel, saving resources as well as giving travelers an authentic local experience, and friendship.

And finally, though many urban residents choose collaborative consumption for social, economic, or time-saving reasons, it also offers broad environmental benefits. In a world that is rapidly growing and urbanizing, imagine the air quality and greenhouse gas benefits if all urban residents chose to share or rent, rather than own, a car. Imagine the resources saved if we sold or exchanged our clothes or electronics when we grew weary of them. Imagine the reduction in furniture production, energy consumption, and food wastage if we chose to live collectively rather than alone. For now, it appears that young city-dwellers are ready to take the leap. Hopefully, others will follow!


Sintana Vergara

Environmental Engineer and Junior Professional Associate

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