(Flickr photo by Ashley Smith)
Did you know that Americans give birth to three percent of world’s kids but buy 40 percent of all the world’s toys?
That’s a lot of toys. Throw in a big home for storage and the mostly overseas labor that goes into manufacturing and shipping, right before the stuff is committed to rot in landfills.
Luckily, the twenty-first century is turning to our ancestors who’d once raised children in proverbial villages and shared. We no longer want to just own, but willingly exchange goods and services.
Spurred by technology and the post-recession economic woes, the peer-to-peer, or sharing economy, has become a household term.
For instance, Airbnb, an online marketplace that since 2008 has enabled regular folk to rent out their homes, now boasts more than a million listings worldwide. The recently embattled Uber has been offering app-based ridesharing services since 2009. And yours truly once borrowed a designer ball gown to meet the POTUS, from Rent the Runway. For cheap. (Yeah, I sent it back).
The sharing economy has lofty goals: Empower people to make extra cash, reduce the carbon footprint, create a global village. Sharing hasn’t been without its share of bad PR, from squatting renters and allegations of abuse by drivers, to the bigger issues like gentrification and the ailing labor market.
But beneath the venture-backed Silicon Valley pageantry, there lies a hero-less, everyday sharing economy helping parents exchange used household and children’s items through social networks.
Family Swaps (It’s Not What You Think)
Often in form of a Facebook group, these parent swaps are a virtual yard sale, and everyone is invited. It involves no rummaging through broken china on someone’s sidewalk or being short-changed. Members can sell or give away old sofas and sneakers a child has outgrown, or request items to appease a toddler’s Frozen obsession. These social transactions are done in real time, with photos and public discourse about product quality, cost and pickup arrangements.
The San Francisco Bay Area alone has numerous Facebook swap groups, divided by cities and even languages. The Oakland/Berkeley group has surpassed 1,000 members. The one in Alameda boasts more than 700.
Other forms of the family sharing economy include popular local newsletters with buy/sell/trade sections, like the Berkeley Parent Network’s newsletter, with 34,000 parent members.
Or take Freecycle, an online community of neighbors giving away free goods. With more than eight million members globally, “it’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills,” the website says.
Numerous consignment shops specialize in buying and reselling of maternity and children’s goods. Meanwhile, Kindercycle in the East Bay hosts exchanges for a small entrance fee. It’s like an old-fashioned clothing swap with your girlfriends, minus the champagne and probably also anything that’s sequined, cropped or in size zero. “Babies and small children grow quickly, and their clothing and gear often have enough life left in them to be used by other babies and kids before they’re worn out, the Kindercycle website explains.
It’s good to reuse, especially since the cost of raising a child in America is allegedly a quarter of a million. That’s dollars.
Now I don’t know where that number comes from – maybe those children get airlifted in a compost-powered dirigible to private schools or ride in gold-plated strollers. But even if that price tag seems a tad hysterical, I never realized how expensive it is to have a child until I had one.
There weren’t many baby things sold when I was growing up in the Soviet Union. I glued my own doll furniture out of cardboard and never saw a Barbie. Russian mothers spent their days sterilizing homemade diapers made of cheese cloth, since Pampers had arrived after Perestroika (women did have a cushy maternity leave – but that’s another post). Still, I had plenty of well-loved toys and did just fine.
So when people recommended I prepare for baby’s arrival by buying a four-directional battery-operated baby swing, wipe warmers and special blankets for the crib, stroller and car seat, respectively, I’d roll my eyes. This wasn’t a competition for the minimalist mother of the year award; I just don’t like having a lot of stuff.
But then the baby refused to eat and to sleep for more than two hours at a time, and I fell prey to the desperate parent consumerism: online reviews and one-click shopping.
Stuff started creeping into our small rental. The thing with a monkey that clips to the crib and sings. The thing with a monkey that rattles. The thing that vibrates when the baby sits in it, and the thing that bounces. Where for an adult, a bottle of cheap wine would do, all those baby items promised to soothe, pacify and entertain in tandem. Like a concerned California mother, I’d also hoped for them to be locally and sustainably manufactured of renewable materials and free of toxic ingredients, currently recognized or potential.
Certainly, owning certain baby items helped, as did family gifts and a cousins’ loaner of used newborn clothes. But they become obsolete all too soon. Unfortunately, having moved four times before the baby turned one led to some isolation; the sharing economy remained a mystery for some time.
Now I’m an enthusiastic user. A five dollar Halloween costume? Check. Getting rid of old rattles? Check. A free sprinkler? Sign me up. Porch pickup.
The deal breaker came when I baked 100 cupcakes for a birthday party, with nothing to transport them in, having never done either. Thanks to the swap, the night before the party, I drove around my neighborhood, picking up these plastic contraptions called cupcake carriers from neighbors, who had left them out on their porches for me to borrow. For free. Or, well, in exchange for some leftover cupcakes.
This sharing system isn’t without problems, like occasional spamming, price gouging or rudeness. But a self-correcting mechanism, the system is thriving.
You never know when you might need to borrow a cupcake carrier. But you do, however, know that in a month, your kid will outgrow all her clothes with penguins on them and require a new wardrobe. Luckily, the sharing economy is here to help without putting a dent in finances, storage space or landfills – plus the bonus of getting to know your neighbors. Like in that proverbial village.