Better than Buying: Barter Economy Matures from Niche to Trend

PHOTO: Airbnb is an online community marketplace for people to list and book unique accommodations around the world.

Once derided as an eccentricity of the environmental movement, the recent economic crisis has helped transform the sharing economy from a niche trend to a full-scale phenomenon. In the coming years, sharing cars, bikes and even clothing may become as viable as buying.

From the perspective of the fashion industry, Johanna Lassonczyk is an ideal customer. She is young, places value on her appearance and, for years, has regularly bought new brand-name clothing and accessories.

From Lassonczyk's own perspective, the fashion industry is in pretty bad shape. That's because the industry has lost her, at least as a loyal buyer. The 31-year-old has recently started swapping instead of always buying new things. "At some point I had so much in my closet that I didn't know where to put it all," she says. The self-employed entrepreneur has recently started attending so-called swap parties. The last one was the "Xmas Event" hosted by the website "Swap in the City" at Cologne's E-Werk concert hall. The motto of the event was "Bye-Bye Shopping! - Hello Swapping!"

It's a straightforward principle. You clean out your closet, gather the things that no longer fit or you don't like anymore, and take them with you to a swap party, where you pay an entrance fee. In return, you receive a credit in the form of fake coins. The clothes are prepared by professionals and, two hours later, displayed as if they were new items in a store.

To make sure the events don't end up looking like flea markets, a jury of organizers only accepts brand-name items. While they wait, visitors listen to lounge music, drink cocktails and receive makeup tips, before they eventually have the chance to swap their credits for other used clothing, bags or shoes.

A Reaction to the Financial Crisis

"Swap in the City" was established in reaction to the financial crisis, offering consumers a platform with which they could curb their shopping urges without having to do without new things. "Germans' consumption behavior has changed considerably," says Harel Shalev, the managing director of "Swap in the city." "This is exactly why platforms like ours can be so successful."

Even though Germans are decidedly in a buying mood, given the strong economy and economic successes, a sort of parallel trend is developing at the moment -- still small, yet interesting. US trend expert and author Rachel Botsman calls it "collaborative consumption," and in her book, "What's Mine is Yours," she invokes a renaissance of sharing and swapping.

The trend is especially exciting to younger generations in Germany, people who have little disposable income to buy things and enhance their social status, and yet don't want to do without anything the consumer world has to offer. They share living space, clothing and cars, and they run community gardens and tool swapping clubs.

Some already see a sharing economy taking shape. Time has declared this new form of consumption to be one of the 10 great ideas that will change the world. But does the movement truly have the power to offer a response to the Western hyper-consumption of the past, one that is both environmentally conscious and hedonistic?

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