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Today there is a growing awareness that business-as-usual corporate and lifestyle practices jeopardize the health of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain a good quality of life. Awareness in turn has created a confusing array of sustainability-oriented decisions. The Greenophobe takes a skeptical, practical, informed look at a variety of sustainability topics. Explore a mix of common sense solutions and in-depth discussions that demystify how to live green and live well.

01 June 2012

Sharing Everything: a simple concept that's world changing

A humorous take on a "green" washing machine from Inhabitat's discussion of traditional efficiency methods.    
Recently Good Magazine ran a story about a sharing program for household washing machines and dryers.  It's a web-enabled concept called "La Machine du Voisin," french for "The Neighbor's Machine." That's right -- opening up your home to neighbors and literally inviting in all their dirty laundry. It is a funny and even unsettling visual. Beyond the obvious ick factor, this kind of sharing is ripe to spread beyond one town in France that has a shortage of laundromats. Expanding the sharing concept to include all kinds of expensive personal gear has clear environmental, economic and social benefits. The idea of sharing everything could very well redefine how we think about owning stuff.

Examples of sharing-based business models are popping up everywhere

Most people are introduced to the concept of sharing by age two.   Bike sharing is widespread in the world's great cities. Rental car companies commercialized the idea of having a fleet of cars that get used by different people around the clock. Neighbors negotiate shared ownership of snowblowers, lawnmowers and other yard equipment. Strangers fractionally own boats, condos and other assets. People even share their couches with hardcore travelers through the couchsurfing community and hitch rides to work using casual carpooling.  You can even share brainpower.   A novel social venture startup called Catchafire allows business professionals to share their skills with nonprofits by donating time performing specialized services.  

Sharing exemplifies triple bottom line sustainability

It's a concept that makes sense both environmentally and economically. When a high value product sits idle for most of its useful life, it's an obvious waste of the embodied energy and materials. As costs continue to rise, the economic incentives for sharing become greater.

Sharing a variety of products that are today considered highly personal could jumpstart a critical shift away from high volume production of cheap crap. Individual ownership of big ticket products inherently forces low quality and generates waste. A whole class of products --including home appliances-- are designed cheap so individuals can own them. They often break from normal use or non-use and then end up in landfills. Cheap products also guzzle energy which can add up to higher total cost of ownership and associated pollution.

Sharing an expanded range of products such as washers requires higher durability and more efficient operation than we expect from today's individually owned devices. Higher initial prices for high-quality stuff would be good for manufacturers and for consumers who gain opportunities to earn rents by lending out their stuff.

Prerequisites for successfully sharing everything

The Internet, social media and new mobile payment technologies make sharing safe, secure, profitable and feasible at an unprecedented range of scales from small appliances to major property. Personal payment technologies have been around since the start of the Ebay age and continue to evolve. Square, for example, enables anyone with a cell phone or tablet to accept secure payments by credit card. In Vancouver, drivers can pay parking meters with a text message. Payment is truly the easy part.

When sharing something as personal as a washing machine with a total stranger, it's essential to have a location-based peer review platform. This makes the process safer and more predictable. Microsites with the local search and review features of Yelp.com reduce the risk out of sharing just about anything. The washing machine sharing program that started in Lille, France has a dynamic website listing the cost, features and sharing locations.

The beauty of social networks is the power of individual choice and the abundance of variety. If sharing a washer with a neighbor freaks you out, don't do it. Individual ownership preserves privacy and convenience but comes with clear trade-offs that I would just as well do without. Stuff is expensive to buy, breaks, needs maintenance and begins to depreciate in value immediately. I think most people value opportunities to be less responsible for the perils of owning stuff but need to overcome the hurdle of thinking differently about what it means to own vs. share.

It's going to go mainstream

We've been brought up and conditioned by targeted advertising to think that owning lots of stuff individually is the definition of success and equates to a high quality of life. Really it's freedom from the burdens of owning stuff that creates a higher quality of life. It is initially tricky to get into this mindset but it's getting easier  everyday thanks to innovative business models that making sharing fun, practical and economical.

Today the sharing concept is at best fragmented to certain communities and certain types of products (it's no surprise that Couchsurfing.org was born in San Francisco, the city that's also home to bike sharing and casual carpooling).

"The Neighbor's Machine" is just the beginning. Expect sharing to proliferate in ways that we cannot even imagine today.  Social networks, the ubiquity of mobile payment systems and rising cost pressures make the old way of owning things simply obsolete.