Better than Buying: Barter Economy Matures from Niche to Trend


Web Professionalizes Sharing Apartment sharing centers, reading groups, ride sharing and flea markets have been around for a long time. The new thing about collaborative consumption is that it can achieve a broader impact with the Internet as both a stage and a platform. The web professionalizes swapping and allows it to develop into an independent branch of the economy.

People can swap services through the Berlin company "exchange-me." For example, a person can use the site to offer Spanish lessons and find someone else to dig up his garden. Payment is made in an imaginary currency, which is credited to a virtual account. On another site, Snapgoods, which uses the motto: "Want it. Get it. Give it back," users can borrow vehicles and other items in the neighborhood for short periods of time and then return them.

On Nachbarschaftsauto ("Neighborhood Car"), car owners can turn themselves into minor entrepreneurs and earn a little extra money on the side by renting out their vehicles. Why should cars stand around, unused, for an average of 23 hours a day? "We believe that the traditional model -- owning your own car -- has become fragile, and that modern technology, coupled with social networks, will further support this change," says Nachbarschaftsauto founder Christian Kapteyn.

The site 9flats brings together people who want to rent out their private residential property for short vacations and others who are tired of the anonymous atmosphere of run-of-the-mill hotel chains. What brings them all together is the experience that the Internet is a place where they matter-of-factly exchange information, text or music. "It offers people a very practical way to recognize that you don't have to exclusively own things to be able to enjoy their benefits," concludes a study by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is aligned with Germany's Green Party. So why not share ownership? All of the many "social" Web offers would bring together people into a new, rapidly growing relationship economy, which is driven by the principle of reciprocity: Help me and I'll help you.

Changing Consumption Habits

Sociologist Harald Heinrichs has studied, for the first time, the extent to which the concept of the "sharing economy" is already being applied in Germany. "These alternative forms of ownership and consumption stopped being a niche phenomenon a while ago," says Heinrichs, an expert on sustainability at the University of Lüneburg in northern Germany. He assumes that the sharing economy will continue to develop, "because particularly younger people, who use social media intensively, seem to have changed their consumption habits."

In his latest study Heinrichs concludes: "Shared consumption, in the sense of common organizing and consumption via the Internet, is practiced by 12 percent of the population." This share could grow, partly because enthusiasm increases as the age of target groups declines.

'A Real Chance To Make Economy More Sustainable' Nowadays it seems there's hardly anything that isn't shared or swapped. Even furniture is up for grabs, and Gabriele Lehmann, a resident of the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, is a perfect example. She started her own business 12 years ago, designing high-quality couches, wardrobes and cabinets. They can easily cost upwards of €12,000 ($15,920), too much for someone with an average income -- and someone who doesn't want cheap furniture from a home improvement superstore.

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