Better than Buying: Barter Economy Matures from Niche to Trend

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Lehmann's company, Winhal, recently began offering a sort of furniture subscription. Customers lease an armoire, for example, and keep it for three or four years. Then it's picked up and replaced with a new model. The returned armoire is reconditioned and passed on to the next customer. The project is already underway and is "showing that consumers indeed value high-quality things," says Lehmann.

The most impressive example of the commercialization of the swap movement is the American website Airbnb, the model for the German company 9flats. The site already offers more than 200,000 private listings. Since it was founded in 2008, San Francisco-based Airbnb, which collects a small service fee for each reservation, has brokered more than 10 million bookings. Airbnb has had a German office since May 2011.

The numbers are still relatively modest, but the industry is growing rapidly, prompting the classic hotel sector to view the private competition with alarm. Airbnb is now valued at more than $1 billion. Socially Innovative Co-Consumers

Sociologist Heinrichs has dubbed this group "socially innovative co-consumers," and he already includes more than a quarter of all consumers in this category. He describes them as people who, as consumers, tend to value innovation and modernity over ownership and individual consumption. Nevertheless, says Heinrichs, "there doesn't appear to be a revolutionary transformation to a collaborative consumption culture." Still, he says, the changes offer a "real chance to make the economy more sustainable in the long term."

In addition to the tourist sector, the fashion industry is also feeling the shift. Cast-off clothes quickly find new owners on sites like Kleiderkreisel ("Clothes Top"). Lithuanian native Justas Janauskas came up with the idea, and two female students have adapted the concept for Germany. Some 2.4 million articles of clothing were collected within three years, and every day another 3,500 are placed on the site, which now has 415,000 members.

The Internet companies generally make their swapping and cooperation platforms available for free, and yet they make plenty of money, mostly through advertising and commissions. This, says Jeff Jarvis, the author of a number of books about media and technology, is the best proof that the enormous demand, which was not being served by the old supply economy, is now being professionally and convincingly satisfied.

This is especially evident in the declining focus on cars among young people, at least in highly industrialized countries. In the past, the automobile was a symbol of personality, signifying a person's status and worldview. "Nowadays owning the car isn't important, but being able to use it is -- and doing so everywhere in the world, if possible," says Stephan Grünewald, a cultural psychologist at the Rheinbold Institute in Cologne.

This type of consumption is more sustainable, says Grünewald, but that's not the key attraction. "It's mostly about having practical solutions in daily life. Every deficient state can now be offset very quickly, and that constitutes a tremendous challenge for classic companies."

The Giants Adjust Who is going to buy a car these days when cars can be rented as needed? Who stays in a hotel when it's more fun to spend the night in private apartments? And who goes shopping in downtown areas when it's easier and faster to order products online?

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