On Earth Day today, learn to share

Today, on Earth Day, we look at an alternative way of living that produces and wastes less.

"Collaborative consumption". Mark that phrase, for it could very well define how we live in the future. Buzzwords aside, it just means people sharing, swapping, borrowing and renting things, often aided by online social networks.

These traditional ways, practised by our grandparents or great-grandparents until affluence and snobbery crept into our lives, are making a comeback as the twin pressures of tighter purse strings and environmental awareness demand that we reassess our wasteful, "throwaway" lifestyle.

In some ways, some Malaysians are already big on collaborative consumption - hand-me-down clothes among siblings and cousins, or book-sharing among friends, are still commonplace. But technology has now allowed the practice of sharing to expand beyond conventional boundaries. Many online marketplaces have emerged, enabling people to collaborate with total strangers to get the most out of their possessions, instead of always buying new.

Among the best-known examples of collaborative consumption is the hugely popular Freecycle.org, which enables people to give away unwanted things to someone in need of them, as well as lelong.com.my and eBay, where people can buy secondhand goods. Travellers looking for inexpensive accommodation can spend the night in someone's spare bedroom via CouchSurfing.org or Airbnb.com, and fashionistas can trade clothes via SwapStyle.com.

Car-sharing companies like Zipcar.com (the US company leases cars to subscribers) are also popular. There are other sites where DIY home improvers can borrow tools and campers can rent equipment per trip, rather than splurge on all-new gear.

As Meriel Lenfestey, co-founder of Ecomodo.com (a British lending site), told The Sunday Times: "It's common sense to maximise the utility of the things we have."

A strong green element is at play here. The traditional way of buying a product, using it occasionally, and then throwing it away, is incredibly wasteful. Sharing and renting stuff, on the other hand, means using less materials and producing less waste.

In her book What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise Of Collaborative Consumption, Rachel Botsman broaches the idea of people consuming "smarter" by moving away from the concept of ownership towards one where we share, barter, rent and swap not just consumables, but also our "time and space".

She writes that sites that allow the rental of household goods are part of a wider trend in which people increasingly want to pay for the use of an item rather than the product itself. She notes that the notion of collaborative consumption has been around for centuries but the arrival of Internet-enabled social networking has super-charged a concept that was already rapidly regaining primacy owing to the growing environmental and economic crises.

"It's really about how technology is taking us back to old market behaviours - swapping, trading, bartering, exchanging, lending, sharing - but re-inventing them in ways that have never before been possible. It's also about unlocking the 'idling capacity' of all the assets we have around us - products (cars, tools, frocks), spaces (a spare room), skills (Ikea assembly) - and using technology to redistribute that capacity to places where it's needed."

Still, there are sceptics who maintain that hyper-consumption is good for the global economy and jobs will suffer without it. To that, Botsman counters (at greenvillages.com.au): "Whenever we're at the start of a new invention, there will be jobs that go away but also many that will be created. These are service industries and businesses are recognising that they can become more profitable by moving to a service-orientated model. You only have to look at video stores. While the traditional offering is at an all-time low, online businesses like Netflix are thriving."

She appears to have found an ally in the British Government, which backs this consumer revolution. Its Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) calls for a fifth of all annual household spending, or about £180bil (RM882bil), to move from buying to hiring by 2020.

Collaborative consumption might seem like a hippy ideal but it can be profitable. Rental sites like Zilok.com (in America) and Rentmyitems.com (in Britain) charge a commission on either the lender or the hirer. For the "rentrepreneur", it is a way of making extra money on possessions that otherwise would just be gathering dust.

The new business model also encourages an innovative spirit - one new online startup, Yards to Gardens (y2g.org), allows gardeners and people with available land to connect and begin growing vegetables and flowers. And at ParkatmyHouse.com, people make money by renting out their vacant garage or driveway as parking space.

One Malaysian who is already into collaborative consumption is Natasha Manan, 31. Last year, she travelled in New Zealand and Australia for seven months without once renting a hotel room. When not bunking with friends, she stayed with hosts whom she found through CouchSurfing.com. She found the experience more fulfilling as she got to know the local people and culture better.

"Some people say it might not be safe but I actually find it safer, as rather than be totally alone, I will have a new family or host in each town who will look out for me."

So as not to waste old nature journals and magazines on fish and acquaria, she offered them at Freecycle.com. She even managed to get a diary halfway through the year, through Freecycle. "It was around July or August and I had just come back from my travels. I needed a diary and got it. It was great."

She also lists down her books and offers them for loans to friends through her Facebook page.

Today, sharing, swapping, renting or borrowing are no longer seen as being miserly. Rather, they are the right habits in a world suffering from global warming, resource depletion and pollution.

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