THE BLOG

A "Buy Nothing" Holiday Season? Why Collaborative Consumption Makes Sense This Year

11/26/2012 03:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2013

By some accounts, Black Friday was a big success. The Dow crawled back over 13,000 for the first time since summer, eking a good story out of reports of growth in Chinese manufacturing, a cease-fire in Gaza and lots of consumers fighting for parking spots at Walmart. Thanksgiving was either the winner -- or the loser -- depending on where you sit. Some bemoaned the retail invasion of our most sacred national holiday; others joined the blood sport in search of cheap consumer goods.

Whatever happened to "Buy Nothing Day?"

This year, Adbusters marked 20 years of campaigning to convince consumers to hit the pause button the day after Thanksgiving. Given reports of police cordons at Kmart and fainting check-out clerks, we seem to be losing the battle. Yet Buy Nothing Day reminds us of an Inconvenient Truth: the average North American consumes five times more than a person from Mexico, ten times more than a Chinese person and thirty times more than a person from India. And the belief that we can grow our way out of our economic woes through buying more stuff is DOA if you consider the effects on a groaning planet.

It's time for some fresh ideas. Luckily, they come, just in time for Christmas.

Last year, Airbnb booked more than 10 million guest nights worldwide, topping $50MM in sales by some estimates. Never heard of it? You will soon, or might, next time you find yourself visiting San Francisco without a hotel option below $500/night, as happened to me last month. I was saved by a lovely Victorian home of an empty-nester near the Castro district, with commanding views of the city at $100/night, including breakfast.

Airbnb is among the most visible business services built on the principle of the "sharing economy" or "collaborative consumption" -- peer-to-peer exchange of goods and services. Airbnb claims that travelers in 25,400 cities spanning 192 countries use the site to find a place to stay. Renting out a room in your home, an old idea that has gone mainstream and enabled by the web, is now a significant source of income for hundreds of thousands of homeowners. The typical seller of rooms-to-rent can book $20,000 or more in annual income. My host in San Francisco says she could rent her two guest rooms every night of the year, if she chose to do so.

Websites now exist to share tools, parking spots, cars, bikes and office cubicles. You know that drill you purchased for a one-time use that now collects dust in the tool box? A thing of the past. Instead, log on to www.Springwise.com or www.houselogic.com to find a neighbor with a lawnmower or lug wrench. Executives are sharing jets and neighbors are renting out Cuisinarts and driveways; good intentions are assumed.

Car rental agencies are experimenting with hourly rentals to match the obvious convenience of the popular urban car-sharing site ZipCar. High-end educational institutions, from Brown University to the Indian Institute of Technology, now offer up classes to the masses on Coursera, which is approaching 2 million on-line users.

If you add this movement to the desire for locavore foods and meals, products made domestically from sustainable and recycled materials like my favorite running top from Atayne, and hand-crafted goods, from jewelry to beer available on sites like Etsy, it may not yet add up to a tipping point--but it's worth keeping an eye on as a disruptive force in consumption as usual.

Fresh ideas, yet so familiar -- reminiscent of the conservative values our Depression-era parents raised us with. "Buy Nothing Day" is fresh off the challenge of being heard above the din at the mall and yet, not to be deterred, it has issued a call for a Buy-Nothing Christmas season.

Count me in.