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Let's Share: The Growth of Peer-to-Peer Product-Service Systems
Adele Peters, 18 May 10

From car-sharing to online dress rentals, solutions that provide services without requiring ownership offer a means to reduce consumption and environmental impact. There's now growing interest in a somewhat different type of product-service-system: rather than consumers renting services from businesses, several websites are facilitating rentals (or free loans) of products between individuals. Items that someone owns but rarely uses, like tools or obscure kitchen equipment, can be listed online for friends or neighbors to borrow or rent instead of buying elsewhere.

Jean Hsu, Chief Product Officer at the start-up Frenting, was inspired to create her business when she and her husband were reupholstering chairs and needed a sewing machine; rather than buy equipment they might not need again, they decided to email friends and ask to borrow a machine. "We realized among our friends we are constantly shuttling things back and forth to lend or borrow for parties, outings, and projects: a step ladder, cameras, folding chairs, a juicer, etc. Clearly we knew friends in general were happy to lend, but just didn't know who had what and what they were willing to lend." She decided to create a website to meet allow friends to list and share products among themselves, and soon met two business partners with a similar vision.

Frenting isn't alone. Neighborrow is a similar site. Also similar, but with a focus on renting, and open for anyone to browse are Rentoid and I Let You. Neighborgoods, founded by Worldchanging contributor Micki Krimmel, offers renting and loaning, and is intended for use by strangers. While Frenting's market research led the company to limit networks to friends, in part to help users feel more comfortable, Neighborgoods has adopted the philosophy that borrowing from friends and strangers can help build community. In big cities, where it can be common for neighbors to be strangers, requesting a vacuum online may be easier than knocking on someone's door, and a way to make a new friend.

Building Bulletins is designed to help apartment dwellers meet the others in their buildings and includes product sharing. GoGo Verde, Bright Neighbor, and Barterquest offer other community-building tools beyond product sharing, like discussion boards and skill-sharing. WeCommune provides software for resource sharing. Other sites that promote product sharing include Swaptree, Techtain, Loanables, and Return My Pants.

At what point can services like these become a viable alternative to shopping at a local store, or ordering from Amazon? The sites face both the challenge of convincing a critical mass of people to participate, just as any social network does, along with the challenge of convincing participants to share as many of the things they own as possible. Jean Hsu argues that it's already simple to borrow on Frenting, because the site taps into people's existing network on Facebook. "Frenting merely makes it socially acceptable to ping everyone you know for something you need." If no one has listed the type of product you need, you can enter a request, and it will be sent out to your Facebook friends and Gchat contacts.

There are factors beyond an interest in sustainability and community that make product sharing attractive; it can be a good way to save money, save space storing things you don't often need, and if the person loaning you something is next door or down the street, you can save time that you might have spent going to a local store or waiting for an online order to arrive. Once a large quantity and variety of products are listed on a particular site, sharing could replace shopping as the default first consideration for many items. Because these sites reduce the social discomfort that comes from asking to borrow something, the range of things that are typically borrowed may increase. Look around: how many items in your home are rarely used, from books to dress shoes to musical instruments to video cameras? With enough participation, product-service systems like these can begin to reduce the amount of products that are manufactured, and reduce the huge environmental burden that comes with production.

Adele Peters is a Bay Area-based sustainable design consultant and writer. She holds a MSc. in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability from Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden.

Editor's Note: Worldchanging has covered product-service-systems before. See the following for more:

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Thanks for including NeighborGoods is this awesome roundup of sharing services! I would like to clarify that NeighborGoods is actually focused on facilitating sharing between people who know each other as well as neighbors you may not know yet. You can set your own sharing options for each item. Thanks again!

Posted by: Micki Krimmel on 18 May 10

It is the first time that I hear of those websites where you can actually share or borrow things. Thank you so much for making it more public. I actually looked at some (frenting) but the problem seems consisting that there are not enough users, what may be annoying for people and they will soon forget about the page. We as people should tell our friends and let them know. It is such a good opportunity to really make the world better and also profiting from that. the swapping page I already heard of that and also registered. It is more known than the others, and I actually swapped a memory card for a technical book I really needed, and saved a lot of money while having a good conscience that I am 'saving the planet'. We need to bring such sites as Barterquest more to the public in order that we all can profit of them.
Thanks for all the details and information, really helpful!

Posted by: Matthew Sender on 19 May 10

Interesting idea. As with any such service, I'm sure network effects apply. If you write about this in the future, I'd love to read more on which services are more popular in different communities, and why.

Posted by: Anirvan on 31 May 10

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