when urban systems become eco-systems

Collaborative consumption – it’s an interesting term. I first came across it yesterday, reading an article on how modern cities can deal with the problem of waste. It also ties in quite neatly with current thinking around new, more sustainable business models.

Society is waking up to the idea that people don’t necessarily need to own something, but just have access to it. This shift towards sharing, trading, and renting is known as collaborative consumption.

Companies such as Zipcar are built on this model, whereby its members enroll in a car sharing service. Cars are parked in various parts of the city – when someone needs a car, they find one nearby, reserve it for a particular time, and pay only for when they use it.

Spinlister operates in much the same way, but with bicycles, and Airbnb is growing in popularity as a platform for people to rent out rooms that aren’t being used. The schemes mentioned are American-based, but over here policy-makers are now investigating how this ethos can be applied to big business in the UK.

WRAP are doing some work around alternative business models, based around reuse, refurb, and leasing. While it’s early days and no real details have yet been released, I’d imagine some of the big waste producers are being encouraged to come on board with this research.

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is an obvious target here – according to WRAP’s own research, more than £220m could be generated from almost a quarter of e-waste thrown out each year. Now if that’s not a pressing business case for recovery, I don’t know what is.

The question for many a business is whether the idea of reuse and leasing sits comfortably with the fundamental notion of selling ever more product, and generating ever more profit. In the push to be sustainable will companies put their money where, quite frankly, their greenwash is?

Sustainability is a term that has been distorted on many fronts, with some CEOs believing a sustainable business is one that will still be around in the next ten years or so – at whatever cost. Really, sustainability needs to get back to its roots. It’s about conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.

So not manufacture, but remanufacture. Closing the loop. Utilising waste streams, not just from internal production processes, but from the supply chain and other, external industries. And here’s the big one – turning consumerism on its head by encouraging people to buy only what they need. To buy less.

Now there’s only one company I know of out there actually asking its customers to buy less, and that’s Patagonia. Check out its recent Black Friday campaign. And while you’re at it, check out its Common Threads initiative too. The world needs a few more Patagonias. A few more risk-takers.

Most companies would not be prepared to go to such extremes, but if they can spot a business opportunity based on a reuse model, rather than a purchase model, they might be persuaded to give it a go. Lets hope so anyway. Here’s to consuming in a more responsible, and collective way.

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