The Sharing Economy and Me

Later in the week, I had lunch with Beth Trask of Environmental Defense Fund who told me that she's renovating a home in Berkeley. And, yes, when she needs tools, she visits the tool library. She told me:

The Berkeley tool library is a real community gem. I've borrowed everything from rakes and hammers to drain snakes, sanders and power tools. The crusty old guys who run it love to tease me -- since I never know the right names for the tools I'm looking for and they usually have to explain them to me -- but they always help me out. I've saved so much money and time, and have learned a lot about tools along the way.

On a visit with Net Impact, a great organization of MBAs, young professionals and college students who want to use the power of business to change the world for the better, several young staffers told me that they thought the sharing economy was a real phenomenon among younger people. Liz Maw, the executive director, was planning to rent a car the following day from getaround, but was stymied by a couple of glitches. But others in the group had used car sharing services, which provide peer reviews as well as insurance. Most cars, it turns out, sit around as much as 90 percent of the time.

I'd readily use AirBnB again, and I'm prepared to try car sharing. I've been using Freecyle for years [see my 2007 Fortune.com column, The amazing Freecycle story]. It strikes me that free or government-backed sharing programs, like Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., function as gateway drugs for people who have forgotten the lessons they learned in kindergarten. They can move from there to Zipcar and from there to sharing their own car or apartment, and borrowing from others.

Lisa Gansky, an entrepreneur and author of a book called The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing, is the leading evangelist for the sharing economy. In a manifesto called Six Reasons Why the Sharing Society (aka the Mesh) Will Trump the Ownership Society [PDF, download], she has this to say about the environmental advantages of sharing:

Barring some miracle in space, there's only one planet for us to inhabit. And by mid-century, roughly three billion more people will join us. With this math, it's not hard to predict that businesses that figure out more efficient ways to use the earth's resources will thrive. Also, urban areas will inevitably become more densely populated, which really favors the sharing economy. If you've got more people in a neighborhood, it's easier to increase the number of bikes, tools, local farmers markets or clothing swaps you can offer. You can also make your offers more convenient -- more shared cars in the lot or on a nearby street. Density deepens community and creates demand for shared products and services. Owning a car outright, on the other hand, becomes a bigger and bigger expense and burden to maintain and park.

Very cool.

Do you think the sharing economy threatens business as usual?

Car-sharing photo CC-licensed by elizalO.