Years ago, perhaps after I served them a rustic-looking crème broulee, my in-laws gave me a miniature blow torch, the better to caramelize future desserts. It’s a neat tool—efficient and exciting to use—but I can’t say I’ve precision-melted sugar more than four times in the last twelve years (crème brulee leaves behind too many egg whites for a household that doesn’t love angel food cake). And so the gadget sits above my refrigerator, a slight risk for explosion but mostly just taking up space.
If you live nearby, I’ll happily loan you my blow torch. Or my shiny red pipe wrench—a full 24 inches long—or my shop vac, none of which get nearly enough exercise. Take me up on my offer, and we’ll be part of a growing national trend. It’s called sharing.
Think about it: many urbanites have given up owning private automobiles in favor of sharing Zip Cars, which quickly and efficiently get us on the road without the hassle and expense of car ownership. We’ve got city bike-share programs, ride-share programs, which match commuters to car pools, and services like Airbnb, which match empty beds with traveling bodies. Yes, people have always shared: what’s new is that so many more people are sharing so many more things. To what do we owe the pleasure? The weak economy, real-time social-networking technologies that make swapping, trading, sharing and peer-to-peer renting easier than ever before, and a growing awareness that our consumptive appetites are taking a serious toll on the environment.
Sharing—also known as collaborative consumption—makes economic sense: it gives us access to stuff we couldn’t otherwise afford. It’s also far better for the environment than buying something new. For every lawn mower you don’t buy, metals, plastics, water, and energy aren’t consumed, and pollution isn’t generated. Products that aren’t created aren’t packaged and shipped, and they aren’t landfilled or burned at the end of their useful lives (or recycled—which, despite its virtues, takes its own environmental toll. (For instance, see my recent column, “China’s Too Good For Our Trash. Yay?”.)
Tool libraries are an early, shining example of the sharing economy. The first in the nation opened in Columbus, Ohio, in 1976, and now offers more than 4,500 individual tools for homeowners and nonprofits to check out, including a joint glover, post hole digger, lineman’s pliers, and a wallpaper steamer. The West Seattle Tool Library, with more than 1,500 tools shared by 780 members, reports that its favorite loaner, by far, is the wood chipper. Today, there are more than 49 tool libraries across the nation, many of which offer instructions and workshops on how to use their offerings. (Inspired to start one in your own community? Go here to find out how.)
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'In a world of hyper-individualization—in which we each have our own phone, musical play lists, privately bottled water, and cars—sharing our stuff with friends or strangers can be a political act.'But what, you may reasonably ask, do hardware stores and rental companies make of libraries offering free access? They’re nervous, at first, about losing business. But after they see a tool library in action, report the folks at ShareStarter.org, which helps communities establish lending libraries, they realize they can benefit from them. Tool libraries motivate an entirely new market of potential customers who are eager to fix up their homes, build chicken coops, and erect tree houses. Tool loans inspire ancillary purchases (roof shingles, chicken wire, rope), and sanders always need new belts. Another important difference: tool libraries operate with small budgets, and so unlike retail operations, they can’t afford to have the latest models of equipment. They don’t have everything, and they usually don’t have multiple copies of tools, a frustration that can drive potential patrons to conventional rental centers.
“We refer people all the time,” Peter McElligot, of the Berkeley Tool Lending Library, told an oral historian in 2008. “We have lists of what is available at local rental places and what the prices are. It’s sitting on a bulletin board so people can check it out.” Boosters of sharing are, as you might expect, very glass-half-full: the sharing economy doesn’t necessarily put old-style stores out of business, it “offers new employment opportunities and additional income in a stagnant employment market,” Annie Leonard, of The Story of Stuff Project, told me. “There are jobs to be had, and income to be earned, in providing access and services, not just outright stuff.” (According to Rachel Botsman, author of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, the global peer-to-peer rental market is worth $26 billion.) And if fewer power drills are manufactured? Well, perhaps that’s no great loss: most of them, notes Botsman, are used for only twelve minutes of their one-owner lives.
But collaborative consumption has a third, critical, dimension: sharing tools or bikes or the fruits of a backyard tree (yes, you can harvest free fruit through CityFruit.org), forces us to co-operate with—and hold ourselves accountable to—other people. In other words, it helps to build community, an engine of activism and social change. Sharing is sociable, it’s empowering, and it’s also an antidote to increasing social isolation. (That is, unless you orchestrate all your collaborative consumption online, through the thousands of websites that facilitate this new economy.) Thanks to longer work hours and longer commutes in single-occupancy cars, social scientists say, Americans have fewer friends than their parents’ generation did, spend more time alone, and don’t know their neighbors’ names. We might have more stuff than ever before (one in ten Americans had a storage locker in 2011), but it’s not making us any happier. Sharing meals, tools, outdoor spaces, and childcare duties, Leonard says, can not only help us to resist the siren call of mindless consumption, it can also reconnect us to our neighbors and communities. As the Berkeley Tool Library’s Peter McElligot notes, the library truly is a pleasant place to hang out. “A lot of people just come and talk,” he says. “And any time you can help someone solve some kind of a problem, they are always grateful.”
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In a world of hyper-individualization—in which we each have our own phone, musical play lists, privately bottled water, and cars—sharing our stuff with friends or strangers can be a political act. It’s also a potential legal minefield, as one advances from the relatively simple sharing of gardening space to sharing a commercial kitchen, art studio, Maker Space, car or vacation home. And so, inevitably, a new breed of lawyers has evolved to surmount the legal barriers to collaborative consumption. The key tenets of sharing? According to attorneys Janelle Orsi and Emily Doskow, authors of The Sharing Solution: How to Save Money, Simplify Your Life and Build Community, participants need to set clear expectations, anticipate obstacles (for example, who’s going to pay if something breaks), and agree on ways to resolve conflicts. And when laws confound your sharing impulse, you can turn to the groundbreaking Sustainable Economies Law Center, which offers education, research, advice and advocacy on the possibilities and limits of sharing and other “creative economic structures.”
A beginner at collaborative consumption, I’m not about to hire a lawyer to codify how I share (or even monetize) my under-utilized assets. For now, that crème brulee torch is available for the asking. All I ask in return is a serving of custard-based dessert.