In Time magazine earlier this year, Collaborative Consumption - put simply, the swapping of unwanted goods for wanted ones - was hailed as one of the top ten ideas that will change the world. We've already seen a rapid explosion in sharing, gifting, lending, trading, bartering, and renting online on a scale never possible before. But in real life this has its limitations - what about if you don't own a car, or the other person lives 500 miles away?
A couple of years ago my friend Juha Koponen and I came to the conclusion that there was probably already enough 'stuff' in the world to go round - there just wasn't an easy of way of sharing it in real-life. So we decided to give up our jobs as successful businessmen - and the accompanying quests to accumulate more goods - to start a free online swapshop called Netcycler (www.netcycler.co.uk) which would make swapping feel exactly like shopping: all done at the click of a button, just without that tricky payment part. It even has a very easy and inexpensive shipping system which means that you don't need to worry about picking things up.
Not only have we cleared a lot of space in our homes and in landfill sites and acquired some things that we actually really want; we've also found that swapping feels a lot better than shopping. One researcher has found that people get a spike of the feel-good hormone oxytocin when they're given someone else's goods; then there's the giving part - instead of that pang of guilt as you click on the shopping basket icon, in its place you get a kick out of the fact that you're giving a mum somewhere a very much needed cot for her baby.
Recently launched in the UK, amidst slumps in sales for goods and announcements of fuel cost rises of up to 20% this winter, Netcycler is growing at ten times the rate it initially did in our native country Finland. We predict we'll easily reach 100,000 users worldwide by the end of 2011.
We hope that the quick growth in sign-ups indicates a coming change not only in the way that people acquire 'stuff' but also in the way that they see it after it's disposed of.
The term 'consumption' quite accurately implies the process that has become traditional this century whereby, like the food we eat, we buy stuff, use it (or don't), and then flush it away when we're done with it. Out of sight, out of mind; once it's gone, it's not our responsibility. But we haven't missed the goods that we found were crowding our homes; too good to throw away, these items were sat gathering dust in corners and cupboards around the house. Now they belong to people who appreciate them.
Then there's all the stuff just sitting there: 90% of the items we own go unused. When you can get something better in exchange, you begin to wonder whether that Christmas present from cousin Hilda in 1999 really does still need to be sitting on a shelf in your study 'just incase'.
The swapping 'rings' on Netcycler mean that, instead of a direct swap, users can choose from a wide range of items that they can request, for free. Typically, they'll have a choice of hundreds or thousands of items in return for offering one thing up.
We've seen everything from candy floss makers to children's clothes submitted as items on the site; it's exciting how quickly it's growing. The more users there are, the more items are submitted and the larger the selection of goods we can offer people. We are looking forward to a time when it becomes commonplace to check swapping sites before you go and spend money in a department store. But for now though - want a new sofa? Your neighbour in Norwich has one waiting to be given a new home.