Share American: Finding that Freecycle Feeling

Share American: Finding that Freecycle Feeling

American flag - CC license by Flickr user eviltomthai

As we near the last quarter of 2010, much has been written about our inability to pass climate change legislation, develop a new energy roadmap or reduce our reliance on oil. These are all very much needed. So is the elusive beast called “sustainable consumption.” On that one, we might be making ground.

Two books, The Mesh and What's Mine is Yours, have recently come out focusing on the emerging trend of capitalism as a sort of team sport. This is a trump card in the sustainability debate, since there is a general fear that a) if we each stop buying lots of new physical goods the economy will collapse (it won't), b) we don't know how to change our behavior and obsession with buying stuff (not true; we can learn) and c) almost everything we are currently doing in society adds to the problem (a bit harsh but probably true).

Team capitalism requires both supply and demand. Joel Makower recently provided a great overview of the many “Mesh” companies that are thriving by replacing individual product sales with services, group buying, and sharing networks. The supply is there, and ahead of consumers. So how do we fuel demand at scale? By turning “Buy American” values into “Share American.”

To start, look at Facebook and Twitter. Half a billion people already know how to share and are doing so on a regular basis. Sharing thoughts, daily actions and everyday moods seems to bring people enjoyment and often, for better or worse, replaces face-to-face interaction. It can even increase oxytocin levels

If we derive a feeling of connection through a status update, can we find a substitute for the emotional high of a new purchase? For that, we look to a lesser-known organization, Freecycle.

Freecycle is a “grassroots movement of people” that promotes reuse. Before your eyes get heavy with the smell of patchouli oil, consider this: Freecycle has over 7.5 million users worldwide, runs on a budget of $200,000 a year and reduces waste amounting to half of a landfill every day. (Disclosure: Freecycle and Inuit are partners.)

When Deron Beal, executive director and founder of Freecycle, first started down this path seven years ago, he thought that the joy of getting stuff for free would drive the growth of the community. What he found is that the emotional satisfaction, the feeling of giving something you have but don't need to someone who really wants it, kept bringing people back. 

Feelings create loyalty, drive behavior and will enable “Mesh” companies to thrive by making consumers as content about using a shared service as they are about buying and owning. Scaling that will require a lot more of us to get a taste of that Freecycle feeling. It will also take ingenious marketing, world-class service levels and drop-dead ease of use for any company that enters the fray. The public sector, however, can also help.

As we claw our way out of the recession, one government solution that could support jobs is a “Civilian Reuse Corps (CRC).” In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps built dams all over the Southeast and made awesome posters of our National Parks, among other things. In the 2010s the CRC could staff drop-off zones, employ thousands to repurpose existing items, and move stuff from those who have it but don't need it to those who need it but don't have it. Sharing American creates jobs, reduces our footprint and proves that we can do it — we can live by a values system with slightly emptier garages. Just like the CCC proved to our country that we still had what it takes, despite the depths of the Depression, to make America work.

As demand meets supply, sharing American and team capitalism will start to take root. “He with the least stuff wins.” Then we can tackle that pesky challenge of a new energy roadmap. 

Stephen Linaweaver is an associate principal at GreenOrder, an LRN company. GreenOrder is a strategy and management consulting firm that helps companies achieve competitive advantage through environmental innovation.

Rupesh D. Shah is the director of corporate sustainability at Intuit, a leading software solutions provider and the makers of TurboTax, QuickBooks and Quicken. Rupesh has also served as manager of learning and development at Odwalla and training manager at Earth Train, an environmental nonprofit organization dedicated to providing youth leaders the skills, resources and network to make a difference in their local communities.

American flag - CC license by Flickr user eviltomthai