If my friends and family are any indication, there are a lot of people reaching the conclusion that they simply have “too much stuff.”   They’ve acquired too many things they didn’t really need or, at the very least, found they needed to use them only a few times.  Too many things are soon relegated to a closet, a garage, a storage facility – never to be seen again (or at least not until the next garage/yard/rummage sale).  This individual approach to consumption is not only expensive but, more importantly, it’s often wasteful.  Collaborative consumption, or what many also refer to more universally as the sharing economy, is increasingly seen as the way forward.

Over the last few years, many articles and books have been written about ways to simplify our lives by eliminating clutter and modifying our consumer behaviors going forward.  One of the best is The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul by Dave Bruno (Harper, 2010).  Given the focus by more and more people on ridding themselves of some of their “stuff,” it seemed only natural when other, broader efforts appeared on the scene.

One of the most well-known participants in the movement – and one with an obvious adjacency to travel – is Airbnb.  The company provides a marketplace for finding and booking unique accommodations around the world.  From spare bedrooms to castles, from villas to vintage Airstream trailers, from tree houses to houseboats, Airbnb connects people who need a place to stay with those who have one available.  In a sign that this market is not just trending up but is rapidly maturing, travel search sites like Wego, started by former executives from Yahoo! and Intercontinental Hotels Group, are aggregating Airbnb-style listings from multiple sources and acting as an intermediary to provide the content to other sites.

Perhaps the most interesting collaborative consumption plays are designed to deliver benefits locally.  The best ones seek not only to put otherwise idle resources to work but also to deliver something of value to society.  Streetbank, for example, allows neighbors to share one another’s knowledge, skills, tools, books, etc.  At its core as well, though, is a desire to reverse declines in community spirit.  Neighbors get to know each other by helping each other.  What a noble goal that is, right?

Very similar to Streetbank, Freecycle.org focuses on helping people to give and get perfectly good stuff (there’s that word again!) in their own communities.  The main goal is reuse and simply keep as many things out of local landfills as possible.  Freecycle.org currently claims over 5 million members and membership is free.

TechShop gives members who want to “make things” access to, and training on, a variety of advanced machines and tools including sophisticated 2D and 3D design software.  Members can have models of a potential new product or just a new piece of art printed by the latest in high definition 3D printers.  They provide Dream Coaches to help train and guide inventors, hobbyists, students, and entrepreneurs.

From a business perspective, collaborative consumption is almost always disruptive in some way to established industries.  Zipcar, an early mover in the membership-based car sharing space, was acquired by Avis Budget Group earlier this year.  Since then, a number of other traditional car rental companies have launched their own programs.

The most important question businesses in affected industries must ask is, “What strategic challenge or opportunity exists?” and there is no one right answer.  It will differ based mostly on the scale of problems being solved, new opportunities seized, behaviors modified, existing revenue threatened, etc.  The one thing they probably cannot do – without potentially huge risk – is to permanently ignore any collaborative consumption enablers that are proving successful.