The Limits to Sharing

*Project Update

Why should every family have a product, like pruning shears, that it only uses once a month at the most? Without too much effort, up to 30 families could use that tool, reducing the resource consumption impacts of its manufacture 30-fold.

The idea of product sharing has received much research interest of late, especially in Europe as it applies to Dematerialisation and Sustainable Consumption. Product sharing makes sense as a strategy for Dematerialisation but is rife with cultural obstacles. More sustainable ways of living and working are required by those who have things in common; the products being shared must be cared for so that others can continue to use them, and the relations between people must also be more carefully maintained.The EDF is addressing the issues of product sharing in Australia through research and workshops in order to establish guidelines for piloting product sharing networks and facilities.

Project Scope
Research has focused on:

  • Looking at existing concealed examples of shared products or facilities to see where these could be expanded
  • To what extent are people willing to share? What kinds of products are most suitable for sharing?
  • An LCA analysis on different sharing models in comparison with buying
  • Potential products and environment redesign to enable sharing
  • What are the largest cultural barriers to sharing?

We are already familiar with the idea of product sharing but not in the formalised concept as a strategy for Dematerialisation. Existing sharing contexts include local council toy libraries, shared laundry facilities in apartments, and casual borrowing of tools amongst neighbours, friends and family. Think of the kinds of products that are easily shared. Tools are shared because they are expensive and often idle. They are also durable. Some products are difficult to share because they have so many fittings it is hard for bits not to become lost. How many households have a set of monopoly with all of the pieces still intact? Often pieces go missing because the packaging is not sufficiently durable. Some products are difficult to use and require instruction sheets that are also easily misplaced. And how often have we lost things because we can't remember who we lent them to? Some of us have personal stamps to help keep track of lent books. These are the kinds of issues under consideration for the redesign of products and environments that facilitate product sharing.

Workshops
Workshops have been conducted around case studies such as an American initiative called iShareStuff.com. Founded by an environmental activist who was in need of 'sewer snake', so had to buy it but then never used it again, this organisation acts as an on-line broker for sharing equipment. Members can either register infrequently used products or tools that they would be happy to lend. Or they can enter what equipment they need to borrow and have the database locate the nearest lender. A number of issues arose as we talked through the idea of getting up a similar venture in Australia — working titles: WhatAreMatesFor.com.au, NoWorries.com.au, or Feel-Free.com.au.

The first thing everyone worried about, given the unsustainable mismanagement of the Australian insurance industry, was liability. iShareStuff.com seems to make the users wholly responsible, but it should be possible to make the whole thing membership based and use the fees to establish a pooled insurance scheme (at least for the equipment, perhaps not for personal injury associated with the use of the equipment). The necessity of a mechanism to prevent damage to products is obviated by the fact that products that are used regularly last longer than those left idle (for months or years on end in sheds). Products could also be looked after by a maintenance or repair service funded by membership.

But some in our group pointed out that the aim of this project would be to change the way people perceived 'sharing'. People don't not share for fear of their stuff getting damaged, but because they are so possessive. The aim of the project would be not only to show people that 'sharers' tend to take good care of what they borrow (certainly better than 'hirers'), but also to rid 'could-be lenders' of the paranoia associated with being an 'owner'.There was discussion about the fact that the project had a pretty narrow target, in that it had to centre around the sort of products and tools that weren't so cheap that everybody had one, nor so expensive that no one would have one (a market serviced by the hire industry). This meant that it could really only service middle-class suburbs. It could be a way of the wealthier helping out those with less, but only where these different socio-economic groups were neighbours, otherwise the transport ecological impacts would make the whole thing unsustainable. The venture could be a sustainment therefore not so much because it minimised the number of products needed to service people's occasional needs, but mainly because it would be a way of introducing the community to the neighbourly experience of 'sharing'.

More optimistic contributions to this discussion centre on the possibility of a greater sense of community through share networks. Would community sharing become so popular that it would compete with online dating as a way to meet that special someone? This may be fertile ground for marketers of share networks. We have also been looking at potential models for formalised sharing networks. Expressions of interest are being sought from local councils for tool libraries. As an on-line venture, there is the potential of establishing small share network businesses that could be sustained through membership fees.

Project Update: Change Designer Gerard Kool has left us to return to Delft University, the Netherlands, leaving behind his research paper on Tool Libraries in Australia. The paper is a preliminary probe into the potential for tool sharing - the types of tools most likely to be shared, the extent of current sharing and attitudinal barriers facing tool sharing. Dr. Mariano Ramirez (Industrial Design, UNSW) is continuing research in this area and Warren McClaren from The Bower is pursuing the options for a tool library facility in Marrickville.