Collaborative consumption in churches

(Colin Bell)

There’s been a lot of talk about “collaborative consumption” in the last year or two. TIME magazine listed it as one of their top 10 green ideas. It isn’t a new invention, but was certainly brought more into the public eye by Rachel Botsman and her book What’s Mine is Yours, together with a TED talk etc.

The principle is simple: instead of everybody owning lots of things that they rarely or never use, items not being used can be lent, hired, or even given away to people who happen to want them now. For instance, instead of having a power drill in every garage on a street, which are used for an average of a few hours each in their lifetime, a single drill could be lent around as needed. Better for resource usage, and cheaper for everyone.

Related are ideas such as lift sharing: see if you are able to share a car journey with someone, Couch surfing: putting people who need a bed for the night together with someone with a spare bed, timebanking and other informal skill-sharing, and so on.

These show that collaborative consumption is being tried, but does it work? There are certainly some obvious obstacles:

  • Trust: can you rely upon a stranger to return something you’ve lent them, in decent time and decent condition?
  • Critical mass: you need a good number of people to have signed up in an area to have a good chance of finding what you want to borrow or use.
  • Knowledge: you need to know who has what to offer.
  • Time and hassle: though it is cheaper to borrow something, it’s definitely quicker if you have it on hand, or just to go and buy one. And when it comes to lending – the risk is all yours and it takes time to arrange the transaction – are we willing to give the time?

These can be got around, to some extent, by use of the web, particularly if reputation-reckoning systems can be made to work, but I think there will be some suspicion to overcome first. To date, my attempts to use any of these collaborative consumption systems haven’t been particularly successful. Liftshare claims 400000 members, but I wonder how many of those like me signed up once, tried and failed to find a partner for a couple of journeys and then gave up.

However, such systems did use to work, back in the days when we were less well off. Few could afford to buy everything they might want, so things got lent around the community. And the fact that there was more of a community meant that what people might need was known, and those not safe to lend to were known as well. In fact, the community was partly built up by all these social transactions, and that we’re now more self-sufficient has only been a hindrance to it. The community is what the web is trying to replace here, and it’s debatable how well.

But for churches and other religious groups, the community remains – or at least should. We know each other, and should be able to trust each other. So they can be a place where such collaboration can occur. In fact, it already does in many churches for some things. Clothes, toys, and other things for babies and children get passed around as the children grow out of them. Some have libraries for books, and organise lift sharing. But can it be taken wider? Something to think about.

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