Sharing as a Solution to Our Environmental Crises

Can swapping be a cure for many of our environmental woes?

We like to share in Brighton & Hove. So much so, that one overexcited Freegler offered her used Mooncup (clean) on the gifting website. A “taken” message never appeared, so we will never know if the local commitment to reusing unwanted stuff goes as far as communal menstruation products.

Freegle is to the UK what Freecycle is to the U.S., and it started right here in Brighton. But long before the internet allowed people to give away a plethora of Billy bookcases or the gradual accumulation of tchotchke, there was the very first public swap shop: the street.

Unwanted items regularly get left outside people’s houses with “Please Take Me” signs, and with double beds, sofas and computers often found touting for new owners on the pavement, these free little markets do a roaring trade.

Roland Miles lives in the Port Hall area of Brighton. He says he and his neighbors regularly put stuff outside and it all usually goes within a matter of hours. One child’s bike elicited a knock on the door within two minutes of being left out to check it was really free. He says: “I once put out some boxes with about 300 books in. All but five were gone by the evening. As a bookseller, I am committed never to destroy a book – it is a sad fact that almost all books gifted to charity are shredded or sent to landfill. For that reason, giving books away like this feels like bucking a system in which too many companies’ growth depends on destroying what has gone before. It also feels good when you see the Please Take boxes outside people’s houses – it is like seeing a flag which announces that you are living among like-minded people.”

The city is also home to a Local Exchange Trading Scheme, two exchange websites, Bid & Borrow and Netcycler, and The People Who Share, a social enterprise set up with the sole purpose of promoting the sharing economy and encouraging people to be less about a “me” mentality and more about “us.”

Benita Matofksa is the founder and chief sharer of TPWS. She says the sharing economy is based on identifying surplus in the system, not just of stuff but of time, skills, knowledge or talent, and redistributing it to those who need it. It’s less about personal ownership and more about community.

She says: “We’ve been living in very individual, consumerist times and we’ve seen where all that’s taken us. We’re dealing with dreadful global crises. Brighton is the place to be for this kind of venture, the people really embrace it, but there is still resistance to the idea of sharing. People say what about me? What about my stuff? What about my interests? Why should I do that? What’s in it for me? These are some of the things we’re hearing all the time. There are some people who won’t find it easy, who say ‘I’ve worked for it why should I give it up?’ But it’s not about giving up things you need on a daily basis. There is loads of surplus in the system, there is stuff lying around that isn’t being used that could be used by someone else.”

Aside from the obvious advantages of sharing and swapping – financial and environmental – keen swappers also find themselves benefiting socially and emotionally. Liz Bolt (who Freegled a fresh squid) says the gifting community, through her acquisitions and the opportunities they have provided, has become very important to her. Her latest find was an enormous sack of knitting wool. Originally she intended to make pom-poms for a friend’s little girl but there was so much she ended up donating some to the children at the Brighton Women’s Centre pre-school and has asked about setting up a knitting circle.

She says: “A little act of generosity can go a very long way. Brighton is a very chilled out town and although it has its problems, most people are generous and kind. We are a very green city. We are also, apparently, the most godless city, of which I and many others are very proud. We do good deeds and help each other not because some sky-pixie says we should, but because it is the right thing to do.”

Perhaps ironically, the sharing economy has a value in the real economy, about $474 billion worldwide. It is an emerging market, but growing exponentially. Disruptive entrepreneur Matofska believes this is the path towards a genuinely sustainable global system and has dedicated her working life to moving it from the fringes and into the mainstream. She says: “Sharing is the solution to our crises, be they environmental, economic or social. People struggle because it feels like something new but it’s innate. We were all born to share.”

Image: My Swish