The social and business case for collaborative consumption

The consumer case for the collaborative consumption is unassailable: I get access to stuff I need at a fraction of the cost

As we hit peak season for buying stuff, spare a moment for another approach to “stuff” – getting access to it without owning it or having to buy it new. It’s known as collaborative consumption, and it fits right in with Metro Vancouver’s holiday campaign to “Create Memories, Not Garbage.”

A few months ago I wrote about how Airbnb is shaking up the hospitality industry by using social media to allow anyone to rent a spare room to a stranger. Well, not a complete stranger. There are checks and balances in the sign-up process that let both visitor and host check out each other before committing to a sleepover.

As I wrote then, Airbnb is just one of a mass of new businesses that use new media to monetize the wasted assets in many of our lives: excess living space and underused vehicles being two of the biggest.

Most of us in Vancouver are familiar with car-sharing (Modo, Zipcar, Car2Go), but the next step is to rent out the unused space in your car. At a recent GreenBiz conference in San Francisco, I heard Nick Allen, the 20-something CFO of SideCar, explain how his company is using its $10 million investment from Google Ventures to push into new markets, most recently Seattle. (He told me to expect SideCar in Vancouver within six months.) His service connects riders and drivers going the same way – after they’ve both passed background checks. Riders “donate” a suggested amount to the driver through a pre-approved credit card.

He openly admits he’s taking on the taxi industry and its overseers: “We’re trying to disrupt a regulatory capture. People just want to go from A to B in a safe and convenient manner. We do that better. It’s more like a ride with a friend than a cab or limo driver. We are confident that in the end, innovation will win out.”

The newest evolution of collaborative consumption moves into your closet, garage and mini-storage unit. Actually, it lets your friends get access to what you’ve got that you want to rent, sell or give away. New companies like Liquid and Yerdle are aiming to put everything you own onto the market for purchase, temporary use or giveaway. Their mantra is “Sharing is the new shopping.”

The consumer case for the collaborative consumption is unassailable: I get access to stuff I need at a fraction of the cost, without going deeper into debt, and I get a chance to make money off stuff I own that’s just lying around. Or just give it away

What makes Yerdle particularly compelling is the corporate pedigree of its owners: Adam Werbach, former president of the Sierra Club and founder of Saatchi & Saatchi S; Andy Ruben, former chief sustainability officer and head of global strategy at Wal-Mart; and Carl Tashian, co-founder of Zipcar. Their wrinkle is to go through Facebook, so all the transactions are between “friends.” “Your friends want to help you; Yerdle makes it easy to ask,” says the company’s website.

“Our software and logistics will make it as easy to borrow from a friend as it is to buy something new and store it,” Ruben told GreenBiz.com. “We can increase the efficiency of an enormously large informal economy that never touches eBay or Wal-Mart right now.”

Revenue?

It will come once there’s a critical mass of loyal customers, the entrepreneurs believe.

Metro Van would be happy: “Our vision is a world that requires making 20% less things because we’re making better use of the things that we have,” said Ruben.

Your friends’ closets, attics and storage lockers are the new warehouses.

Less garbage, lower consumer costs, more personal bonds between buyers and sellers, a way for anyone to make a little cash – what’s not to like about this trend? Unless you’re a conventional retailer, of course. •

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