By Christina Cooke
Milos and Tijana Jovanovic rent out the downstairs level of their Portland duplex on sharing websites like Airbnb for $110 to $130 a night. They're currently booked out three months. "It's nice additional income and not that much work."
// Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer
I’m no stranger to borrowing in the most traditional sense. I check out books from the library, rent cars on vacation and forage through my sister’s closet when my own wardrobe seems stale. But I’m a novice when it comes to the modern-day borrowing possibilities — which, on their current trajectory, have the potential to upend long cherished notions about buying and selling.
Known as the “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption,” the latest form of sharing challenges the status quo with the idea that access trumps ownership — that drilling the hole is more important than owning the drill. Rather than buying items outright, practitioners of the new model purchase short-term access, either from a company with a fleet or a neighbor with a for-rent supply of consumer items or services.
In Portland, for example, more than 500 people rent out spare bedrooms on the space-sharing platform Airbnb — including more than 65 within 15 blocks of my house in an inner southeast neighborhood. More than 1,100 vehicles around town are up for borrow through services like Zipcar, Car2Go, RelayRides and Getaround — including more than 80 within a mile of me this very moment.
On numerous other websites based in Portland and around the country, budding entrepreneurs rent out random oddities like sewing machines, pasta makers and cruiser bikes, and arrange service swaps like, “You plumb my sink; I teach you Spanish.”
Rooted in age-old American principles of community and thrift, today’s sharing economy is a modern-day phenomenon, possible only because the Internet and mobile technology can facilitate frictionless exchanges between owners and renters using “reputation verification” systems, which appraise users’ online reputations, as well as maps and satellite positioning technology. Developed because people could not afford to sustain the hyperconsumptive patterns that led to the global financial crisis in 2008, the sharing economy is also about practicality — and the creation of new business models that capitalize on efficiency and pragmatism.
Collaborative consumption encourages spending at the community level, fulfills people’s desires to connect with their neighbors and betters the environment by squeezing the most out of our resources. Yet because it opposes the well-established American paradigm that encourages individual ownership — house, picket fence, SUVs — sharing faces a number of challenges from the mainstream.
Will this emergent economy be a flash in the pan, or will the monetization of sharing become yet another disruptive business model, radically changing how the country thinks about buying and selling? From my home base in Portland, fertile ground for the new economy, I decide to find out.