Why Buy When You Can Swap?

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As a college student, I love this whole phenomenon of the “sharing economy.” That’s the term economists use to define a community of people who freely share and swap resources, often managed online through websites or forums. Turns out, actually paying for stuff, or just throwing it out, is so 2011–if you can share it instead.

Before this sharing boom, I’d rely on my Facebook network when I needed help. In my freshman year of college, I posted “Anyone have a fridge or rug they don’t use or like anymore?” A senior offered up her old rug for free. So I got what I needed, but I only had my own 700 friends to draw from.

Now, with websites like FreeCycle, anyone can ask tens of thousands of people to share. I’m pretty sure more than one of them would have a rug they did not want anymore.

As an econ major, I was really interested in hearing from Juliet Schor about the underpinnings of what she calls “connected consumption” (watch the full discussion). She says there are five reasons the phenomenon is growing:

1. Cultural – Recently, there has been a backlash against hyper-consumption. Attitudes have shifted when it comes to indulgences, necessities, and savings. In my group of friends at least, you appear more stylish and cool if you find a unique purse at a thrift store, rather than brag about an expensive designer bag.

2. Economic – With deteriorating economic status, especially for youth, people actually do not have as much to spend. There are also the kinds of anti-corporate sentiments evident in the whole Occupy Movement’s platform.

3. Ecological – The climate crisis and rising green consciousness have shifted people’s interests to more local ways to spend and interact. More shops are banning plastic bags, using eco-friendly products, and encouraging people to think about their consumption.

4. Technological – The growing digitization of everyday life and pull toward digital practices make sharing easy, convenient, and efficient.

5. Social – Critique of social isolation has led to a desire for more social connection. I would agree that our tech dependency allows us to meet new people, but it also physically separates us from the world. Online sharing communities facilitate meeting new people and can lead to real world connections.

This sharing economy resonates with me, because over the last year I’ve been a part of a team at Youth Radio working on a fruit-sharing app called Forage City. Young people, developers, designers, and community leaders have worked together to create this “pluckable platform.” Forage City invites people to share their backyard produce, to reduce waste and share healthy food. Our tagline is “uniting citizens of leftover nation.” When we started working on this app, we focused our research on other food-related apps. As our development progressed, we recognized that we were creating a platform that taps the sharing economy: a way for Jill on 3rd Street to exchange her lemons with Sam on 5th Street for some delicious plums.

Schor discussed several of the difficulties in developing sharing economies. One of the biggest was trust. That’s been a constant question and roadblock in our development of Forage City. How do you get someone to trust the site or app, enough to put in their address or meet a stranger? There is no real formula to answer that question or step-by-step plan. For Forage City, we made sure we set up a flagging system so people could report misbehavior. We agreed that the app wouldn’t focus on getting people to go into someone else’s backyard–the idea was to pick and box up your fruit yourself. Overall, we just wanted to set the tone, and develop a community, that was eager to share their resources and possibly meet others excited about eating and growing local.

We’re working on the next version of Forage City now–and our plan is to make it an open platform so communities can customize it and make it their own. We’re learning a lot from other projects, like Couch SurfingFreeCycle, TimeBanks, even Task Rabbit. And fromProfessor Schor.

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