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The Internet's oldest 'sharing economy'

"Life is Sharing" mural

With all the manufacturing, management, academic and professional positions disappearing, the public is impatient for the digital economy to produce some real jobs. Uber and Airbnb are often held up as examples of a new "sharing economy," where individuals can earn money by sharing their homes or cars with strangers. Although sharing is not a typical Western society trait, debt is at high levels these days, and renting out a room or a ride may help make ends meet.   

Somebody's getting rich, but it is usually not the individuals who hire themselves out by the hour or the night. Big money goes to the digital companies that connect vendor and client. Airbnb expected to gross $900 million in fees in 2016. Meanwhile, both proprietors and customers wrestle with issues like liability.

On the other hand, there are other ways to structure a sharing economy. 

Take a look at The Hunger Site, with its big yellow button that says "Click here - it's FREE!" Since the site started in June 1999, daily clicks from about 220,000 individuals globally have mounted up to 853 million cups of food, paid for by sponsors and delivered by local community partners to hungry people in 74 countries around the world. Nine million pounds of that food funding came in the first nine months in use! Before long, the response became way too overwhelming for the "individual in Indiana" who started The Hunger Site. 

GreaterGood.com bought the site and expanded it to include retail franchises. Michigan University pals Tim Kunin and Greg Hesterberg formed CharityUSA.com as a parent to a charity, GreaterGood.org, and another company, GreaterGood.com. On a global scale, they are still among the first to explore what we now know as "social enterprise."  The site says that 100 per cent of retail profit passes through the GreaterGood.com to the different causes in the GreaterGood.org.

GreaterGood.com is an advertising agency that recruits the sponsors who pay for GreaterGoods' operating costs, salaries, and charitable donations -- and some have done so for more than a decade. So far the charity, GreaterGood.org, says it has donated more than $40 million (raised by its retail sales) to charities around the world.

GreaterGood's greatest potential impact is that it links Western consumers directly to workers in developing countries who produce durable goods like women's garments, purses and bags, shoes, giftware, jewellery, children's clothes and toys, kitchenware and home decor, car accessories, and garden tools. Purchasers buy mainly from cottage industries. Groupon does something similar, but the products look more like factory goods. 

GreaterGood.org multiplies its market by offering mostly the same goods across a variety of charitable platforms including autism, literacy, homeless veterans, animals, rainforests, breast cancer, diabetes, and more. All meet GreaterGood's guidelines for ethical buying. Some goods are explicitly marked "Fair Trade" and "Global Girlfriend," which usually means somebody is dealing directly with local women's co-operatives. Others seem to come from sheltered workshops or local social enterprises, often for women who have been rescued from war zones or human traffickers.

GreaterGood does emphasize women's products because, "We believe that providing markets for fairly traded products made by marginalized people (especially rural women artisans) is the best way to reduce intergenerational poverty." GreaterGood shops also partner with the National Geographic for the upscale Novica line of clothing and jewellery (e.g. a men's alpaca sweater for $80.00 USD).   

And to top it all off, The Hunger Site still feeds people: "each item you buy funds at least 50 cups of food for the world's hungry." Also, "three per cent to 50 per cent of the item's retail price will be kept aside to be granted to our charity partners through GreaterGood.org." GreaterGood also pledges to protect the environment, human rights, labour rights, intellectual rights, and consumer rights.

There are some drawbacks. GreaterGood's well-intended guidelines can cause complications. The fabrics are pure and natural. Handwashing, anyone? Since no single women's sewing co-operative could supply the volume GreaterGood needs, their local contractors must commission work from several different producers, not all of whom hold to the same standards. I've had to return one product out of a dozen -- fewer than with, say, Groupon.

Mind you, products sold in U.S. dollars can be expensive for Canadians. A blouse advertised at $16.95 USD can cost $50 CAD, with shipping and exchange. So it's a splurge. At least the sustainability pledge produces durable goods. Every year I still get compliments on a sparkly wire pin, a holiday star that I bought on special in 2009 for $1.99.   
 
For what it's worth, I still think that the only environmentally-sensitive way to buy clothing is to buy second hand. The garment industry has been called the second most polluting industry in the world, behind only oil.  Keeping up with fashion is becoming environmentally irresponsible -- another industry threatened by climate change. 
 
However, for a splurge, or for a gift, or for that special festival outfit, this is a true sharing economy. GreaterGood offers an approach that strikes me as win-win-win-win: workers get a fair wage, purchasers get a safe and durable product, charities receive a tip, and hungry people always get some food. 

Moreover, GreaterGood is building global grassroots connections that reach completely outside formal trade agreements -- networks of consumer support for social change, especially for local and Indigenous women. A blouse that's a splurge for me (and that I wear with pride) could be a week's wages for another woman -- instead of a scant fraction of a percentage on some corporation's profits.  

The best part is, you can do good while visiting the GreaterGood sites without spending a cent. You can log on every morning and just click the yellow "CLICK HERE - it's free!" button. There are worse ways to start the day than by booting up to make sure that a stranger somewhere in the world gets food.

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Image: Flickr/Alan Levine

 

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