Rags, bones and the sharing economy, by Rob Cameron

At the risk of showing my age, when I was very young I was fascinated by the man that passed by our house every other week with his horse and cart letting out the cry of “any old iron!” He was a rag and bone man and one of the last of a dying breed that made their living collecting anything that people wanted to get rid of – metal or not. “Put it outside for the rag and bone man” was a familiar refrain in our house.

The rag and bone trade came to my mind towards the end of the first Global Sharing Day, another step forward in the emergence of the “sharing economy”. On 14 November 2012, events were held in countries across the world from the launch of Shareable in Melbourne Australia to “The greatest share on Earth” lunch and an oversubscribed parliamentary reception at the UK House of Commons.

The numbers are impressive – estimates from The People Who Share – a cornerstone of this growing movement – are that some 60m people in 147 countries are participating in the sharing economy in some way, with a total economic value of £310bn. And the potential for this to grow appears to be immense given that research suggests that there are 1.6tn unused items in homes in the developed world that could be shared with others who need them.

Sharing is probably the first social value that most of us are taught, as we take our early steps into society at kindergarden. So from very early childhood we are conditioned that sharing is a good thing. But there is an emerging body of evidence that suggests that as we grow older we gain a predisposition to cooperate and share. Michael Tomasello’s Why We Cooperate, Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, and Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy all point in this direction.

All of which begs the question: if sharing is so culturally ingrained, is anything really new going on? Can the sharing economy make a breakthrough in motivating and inspiring consumers? Is it really clear what the sharing economy actually is? Are we just pinning a new label on something that has been around for years?

Many forms of sharing – car sharing, house sharing, and clothes recycling, to name a few – have existed in some form or another for years. But, what is new is that both the need and the opportunity to share have never been greater.

The need is clear. Resource scarcity is increasing and we cannot live well, and do so within planetary boundaries, at our current rate of consumption. The “age of austerity” in much of the developed world is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Inequality is growing and social cohesion is under threat. There is little appeal in the freedom to buy anything we want whenever we want if the price for doing so is a worse standard of living. What is key is being able to use the things we want when we want them: in the era of austerity access trumps ownership.

As for the opportunity to share, this has never been greater thanks in large part to the rise of always-on Internet access. Social media creates a wealth of possibilities, enabling new ways to share, and making existing forms of sharing easier. For example, the owner and user of a shared item can visibly rate their experiences of their interaction – just like on eBay – to build trust with others in the community.

The increased need and opportunity for sharing has spawned a new social movement. A network of inspired and inspiring individuals see the potential to draw together clothes recycling and tool sharing and many similar activities into one narrative. And this narrative can serve to make sharing not only acceptable, but even desirable. Now that is worth doing.

So I don’t think it matters if some see the so-called “sharing economy” as nothing more than a narrative, or a fancy new label for old ideas. Sharing allows us to make more of what we have; to express a value that is as culturally and emotionally significant as it is beneficial to the environment. Sharing is an idea whose time has come, and we need it to go mainstream. If a new label can help to make this happen, I for one approve – and I think the rag and bone man would too.

Rob Cameron is executive director of London-based think-tank and sustainability consultancy SustainAbility. Read more of his blogs here.

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