The Sharing Economy: Is Borrowing the Next Sustainable Product?

Sharing Economy
Photo Credit: Got Credit

In today’s consumer-driven society, we are constantly bombarded by advertisements for the next biggest thing. Sometimes, the marketing is so effective it’s impossible to refuse.

At the same time, our houses have ballooned because we can no longer fit all of our junk in just the attic. There are entire rooms in our homes entirely dedicated to storing things we use only once.

Think about all the appliances and gear you may need monthly or yearly, such as that conference lanyard, two-person kayak, or soil tiller. What about the millions of gas-guzzling vehicles we drive to work, only to let them idly sit for most of the day?

What if many of the things we want were available to us at a much cheaper cost, or even for free? What if we asked, “Should I really buy my own, or would borrowing suffice?”

What is the sharing economy?

The sharing economy is a way of offering goods and services in order to reduce unnecessary costs and manufacturing. In short, it’s sharing what we have and borrowing what we need from others.

Both services (such as accommodation) and goods (such as lanyards) can be found in today’s thriving sharing economy. Here are a few leaders in this new system and how they’re bringing the concept of sharing to life.

What are some examples?


Tool Lending Library
Photo Credit: Lauchlan Dennis

Gardening and power tools are perfect for the sharing economy because they are commonly bought but seldom used. “Tool libraries are community-based organizations just like traditional libraries, but with tools instead of books,” explains Richmond, Virginia’s RVA Tool Library.

Most tool libraries employ a simple lending system, just like a book library. You join and get a card, visit the established location to see if the item you need is available, sign it out, and return it when you’re finished.


Car Sharing
Photo Credit: Car2Go

For urbanites with adequate bicycle infrastructure and public transportation, cars may only be necessary for long distance or big-haul trips. Therefore, it’s difficult for these folks to justify steep car payments and other costs associated with vehicle ownership. That’s where companies like Car2Go come in.

The fleet of Car2Go cars park at various locations within a city. Once approved to join, you get an access card that unlocks the cars. You then book a vehicle through their mobile app and return it at the end of your reservation.


Couch Surfing; Sharing Economy
Photo Credit: Picture Alliance/DBA

A pioneer sharing economy organization is Couchsurfing. Part of the large and growing network of accommodation sharing websites, Couchsurfing connects locals willing to house travelers for free in exchange for good company and cultural exchange.

It’s a great way for wanderers to meet, learn from, and explore like locals, and most “surfers” offer something to their hosts, such as wine, language lessons, or cooking meals. The terms are entirely negotiated by participants.

Business Essentials

Eco Promotional Products
Photo Credit: TEDx Renfrew Collingwood

Every industry has conferences to attend, and many provide their attendees with valuable contacts, training, and presentation experience. Unfortunately, these events are notorious for excess waste and giveaways that are never used. One ubiquitous item necessary at any conference, but usually thought of as redundant after the event, is a lanyard.

Lanyard Library seeks to change this. A Fairware project, Lanyard Library lends lanyards out to various conferences for free (the organization only pays for shipping) in return for a few photos of them in use. Fairware provides environmentally responsible promotional products and marketing merchandise to North America’s leading brands, and saw lanyards going to waste after a single event. This project saves participating organizations money by eliminating the need for new lanyards, reduces the environmental impact of the event, demonstrates a practical commitment to sustainability, and promotes the organization through use of its photos on the Library’s website.

The Up Side of the Sharing Economy

This spirit of collaboration and the fundamental concept of sharing is far from new, but its resurgence today as a new socio-economic system is quickly catching on with the help of the Internet, and for good reason: it’s friendlier to both our planet and our wallets.

Most people have heard of the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, but most people don’t know that their order is intentional; recycling should be used only after we have reduced what we consume and reused what we already have. The sharing economy takes this principle to heart, diverting countless tons of waste from landfills and protecting the environment.

It also saves everyday consumers untold hard-earned dollars, allowing them to source goods and services only when needed from their neighbors and increasing their availability to others. Beyond saving money, this structure also provides alternative ways for people to make money, by renting out one’s otherwise idle car, for instance.

The Down Side of the Sharing Economy

The sharing economy has consequences for the evolution of the American job market, and despite its myriad benefits, there is a dark side – especially in the ‘service’ sharing space (think UBER). A 2014 Freelancers Union study posited that 34% of the total U.S. workforce is comprised of independent workers or freelancers. This number is predicted to continue increasing (Ambrosino, 2016).

What’s the problem? “Seven out of ten freelancers experience trouble getting paid by clients, often waiting months for a check – and sometimes getting outright stiffed,” says Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers Union (Ambrosino, 2016). The ability of these workers to access benefits traditionally provided by employers, such as retirement and health care plans, also decreases.

The sharing economy poses many ways to improve our financial situation and our relationship to the earth. It also challenges us to adjust to an ever-evolving socio-economic system.

Whether or not you believe the sharing economy brings more harm than good, advocates and opponents can both agree that times are changing. Those companies committed to sustainable growth and workers willing to be flexible and open-minded are more likely to see success in the future, wherever it may lead.


Ambrosino, Brandon. 20 April 2016. The gig economy is coming. You probably won’t like

  1. Boston Globe.