Airbnb and Collaborative Consumption: The End of Excess?

It began when two cash-strapped design school grads decided to rent out air mattresses to visitors in order to pay the rent. Soon after, they set up a website and began renting out rooms in their apartment at $80 per night.

Seven years later, those cash-strapped roomies are on Forbes‘ billionaire list, and Airbnb is operating in 34,000 cities in 190 countries, with over a million dwellings listed on its online platform. According to Business Travel News, the company is poised to surpass the leading hotel chains in the next few years in patronage.

In addition to enjoying formidable commercial success, Airbnb became the leader of a legion of companies that allowed customers to rent goods for short periods of time via easy-to-use online platforms. Though there was nothing novel about companies renting goods to customers, the newfound peer-to-peer marketplace was revolutionary in that its companies were in fact ordinary citizens, and the goods they were lending were their own assets.

By 2013, Forbes noted, more than 100 of these companies existed, offering everything from car sharing (RelayRides and Sidecar) to temporary rooms for dogs (DogVacay) to skis (Rentoid and SnapGoods).

Now known widely as “collaborative consumption,” Forbes called the new phenomenon a “disruptive economic force”– one that was capable of changing our relationship with material things forever. “Just as YouTube did with TV and the blogosphere did to mainstream media, the share economy blows up the industrial model of companies owning and people consuming.”

That Airbnb and the other peer-to-peer pioneers emerged from the rubble of the 2007 financial meltdown and subsequent recession is hardly by coincidence, notes The Economist. The sharing economy, the publication claims, is nothing more than a “post-crisis antidote to materialism and overconsumption.”

The LA Times’ Alex Stephany agrees, “The boom time left us with too much of everything, from cars to second homes to power drills,” he says. “Now that it’s over, we’ve never had a greater financial need to make use of these assets.”

Those alarmed by the recent New York Times report showing worldwide debt levels at nearly three times the planet’s economic output should be comforted by the fact nearly 25 percent of Canadians, Americans and Brits are now patrons of the sharing economy. Though far from a solution to the debt crisis, the sharing economy is an indication we are beginning to abandon our hazardously wasteful ways, and that the illusion of ownership may finally be losing its seductive powers.