The potential power of sharing: from Share Shops to Streetbank

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Posted Jan 2 2018 by Sophie Paterson of Lowimpact.org
Wen Lee & Chris Stratton of Frugal Happy with their hand-built Share Shed Wen Lee & Chris Stratton of Frugal Happy. Credit: Matthew Escobar/Temple City Connect

In this post Sophie Paterson of Lowimpact.org explores the power of sharing in a growing movement including The Library of Things, Streetbank, Share Shops and more.

With January sales already in full swing, many of us might be feeling adrift in the sea of consumerism that the season of goodwill has become. No better time, then, to attempt to restore our faith in humanity by considering the antidote to shopping: sharing. Critical to human evolution according to evidence uncovered from studies of the Blombos Cave in South Africa, sharing as a concept is by no means new. In more recent times in Western capitalist societies, however, the practice of sharing has become buried in favour of individually stockpiling the newest, shiniest goods to hit the shelves, which in many cases may hardly ever actually be used. But what happens when we say no to constant consumption, no to owning everything we might possibly need?

Defining sharing

So what exactly do we mean by sharing today? This is an important question to tackle from the off and it is perhaps best to begin by considering what sharing is not. Top of the list here is the so-called ‘sharing economy’, which, since its adoption by the likes of Uber and Airbnb, has become rather murky territory, for reasons explained in this post from Dave Darby in 2015. Since then, little appears to have changed. With locals increasingly priced out of tourist hot-spots such as Barcelona, increased gentrification and fears about the decline of small family-run hotels linked to the rise of Airbnb and mounting criticism of Uber making regular media headlines throughout 2017, these prime examples of platform capitalism remain far from embodying the true concept of sharing, in spite of their loud proclamations of corporate social responsibility.

What is the 'sharing economy'?

Confused by the so-called sharing economy? You’re not alone, according to PEW Research Centre.

Then there is the whole host of other terms which sprouted up alongside the ‘sharing economy’. Pioneer of one such term is Rachel Botsman, author of What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live. She seeks to define and delineate this and various other terms here. What becomes clear is that each of the platforms discussed – whether craft giant Etsy, Inc or Kickstarter, re-launched as a Benefit Corporation in 2015 – whilst involved in interesting and laudable work at first glance is operating on a very much for-profit basis, beholden to share-holders. Not a form of sharing that ultimately benefits many of us, then.

Surely sharing in its truest sense is the act of lending, borrowing or giving something for free. So, with the ‘sharing economy’ and ‘collaborative consumption’ of platform capitalism ruled out, let’s explore what more genuine forms of sharing in action look like.

From low-cost…

First up, it’s the turn of the Share Shop movement, a concept born in Berlin in 2012 and first piloted in the UK in West Norwood, London, as The Library of Things in 2014. Central to its creation is a questioning of the assumption that a single household should own everything it needs, particularly when those things might be used on only a fairly occasional basis. Think power tools, projectors, pressure washers. Fast forward one year and in Frome, Somerset, eight 18-30-year-olds were given an empty shop, £500 and the challenge to create the UK’s very first Share Shop in a mere 6 weeks. The video below explains what SHARE is and how it works.

Since then, it has gone from strength to strength, and currently boasts over 800 members who between them can borrow a diverse inventory of 787 items to date, from power drills and leaf-blowers to preserving pans and camping equipment. Such is its success that spin-offs now exist in various locations across England: Share Shed opened its doors to the people of Totnes, Devon in April 2017 and Borrow It is currently in the making in Bath.

There are Share Shop initiatives now operating globally, from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands to the United States of America. Meanwhile in Switzerland, the wonderfully-named Pumpipumpe Association is building sharing communities through the rather unlikely tool of stickers. Particularly pertinent to city dwellers living in apartment blocks, the stickers feature everyday items from DIY tools to board games and kitchen equipment and can be stuck to mailboxes, letting your neighbours know which items you are able to share and lend. Here’s a video with more.

So far, so good, it seems, but is there a catch? Well, visiting the websites of any of these organisations you will notice that there is a cost involved – whether ordering the Pumpipumpe stickers in the first place or making a payment or donation in order to borrow items and/or become a member of the network. The key difference here is that all of these organisations are operating on a not-for-profit basis, in contrast to the companies discussed above. Money raised through payments and donations goes to cover running costs and considerations of tiered payment structures according to household income and a number of free memberships for jobseekers are encouraging.

…to no-cost

But what about a truly free sharing scenario, with no up-front costs to the user? Enter Streetbank!

The Story of Streetbank video above provides a handy summary of what this registered charity is working towards. With 31,772 neighbours sharing 109,492 things to date, it has clearly struck a chord and stories of how Streetbank has strengthened communities through the sharing of useful stuff abound on their blog. Accessible to anyone with an email address, this certainly embodies the true meaning of sharing.

The true power of sharing

And if none of the above appeal, why not try giving sharing a go on your own initiative? Husband and wife Wen Lee and Chris Stratton of the Frugal Happy  blog did just this in their neighbourhood of Temple City in Los Angeles, California. Inspired to make the most of their bountiful home-grown produce, their concept of a “share shed” was born and very soon after built by their own fair hands. You can find a photo of them at the top of the page and read all about it here.

The simple act of sharing in community is fundamental to much of what Lowimpact.org embraces, whether supporting co-operatives over corporations, volunteering as a WWOOFer, being part of an intentional community or housing co-operative or taking steps towards downshifting your lifestyle. Sharing is something anyone can do, so if, like me, you’ve been inspired by the stories above, why not join me in making sharing more and buying less a resolution for 2018?


About the author

Sophie Paterson works as part of the Lowimpact.org team with a focus on social media and book promotion. She spent the past year living and volunteering on a farm in Devon. In any spare time she undertakes natural building work and training and attempts to keep up her Arabic language skills.