30/10/2014 11:11 GMT | Updated 29/12/2014 05:59 GMT

How Collaborative Consumption Can Save the World

Imagine being able to borrow an Alexander McQueen dress at the click of a button. To step outside on a rainy day and have a car waiting for you. To stay in someone else's New York loft apartment on your holidays, complete with all of the homely finishing touches and recommendations (a corner shop, a bar, a hairdresser) that you need. Or to turn up in someone's living room for an impromptu restaurant-grade supper. While some of these ideas might sound decidedly left-field, chances are the concept of the collaborative economy has entered your life already in one way or another with car-sharing, holiday and even clothing rentals, a growing phenomenon.

A collaborative economy revolves around the idea that individuals can depend on each other to fulfill their needs, through sharing existing resources and skills. In its simplest form the collaborative economy is a gift exchange whereby individuals help other people by donating their time, knowledge or materials free-of-charge, with faith that they too will be supported in the future. In 2013, supermodel Lily Cole launched the mobile app and website, Impossible, where users could declare their wishes in order to have them granted. The requests to date have ranged from 'I wish I could borrow a tent' to 'I wish I had more self-confidence' and the purpose of the relationship between users is simple - to make the both parties feel good.

As a business, collaborative consumption works too. For the agencies that facilitate home stays for example (and take a cut of the fee), start-up costs are minimal with the process largely reliant on an internet connection and existing unused properties. Concepts such as crowd-funding also allow people, rather than faceless organisations, to benefit financially from the future success of start-up businesses.

The positive impact of a collaborative economy is huge. Firstly, it empowers individuals because it highlights that people have values and skills and praises these accordingly. In a simple way it humanises the supply chain and reminds us that we should be treating the producers of the goods that we need, fairly. Of course, the consumer benefits from the convenience of being able to access products and services that they may not normally be able to.

Secondly, by introducing authenticity to our exchanges - for example, by staying in a household rather than a hotel or wearing a pre-loved dress which we have hired we are also able to add to a sense of meaning in our lives. We are able to connect with the lifestyles of others and to understand their experiences, which makes our own life better and more fulfilling.

Finally, the positive impact is environmental. If we are able to adjust our mindset to seeking out what we want from our network before we make a new purchase, we will be able to reduce the amount of materials we waste and the amount of damage we cause in creating new goods. For example, avoiding purchasing an extra pair of shoes or a dress for an event, immediately cuts down on the materials used for the item and its packaging and eventually may mean that the emissions generated by manufacturing and transport processes are reduced.

We could do worse than start to live by the expression: "it's not about having what you want, it's about wanting what you (and your network) has."