Collaborate. Cooperate. Consume

Economic models based on sharing, swapping, bartering, and collective buying are outstripping outdated modes of shopping. Technology, peer-to-peer marketplaces and customer dissatisfaction are mixing with imagination, changing not just what we consume but how we consume it. We speak to proponents of this new paradigm: five alternative economisers, collaborative consumers and collective shoppers.

Dr. Luc Jonckheere

Cofounder, Cohousing La Grande Cense, Tubize

“Ours is not the first collaborative community in Belgium, but it’s the first co-housing community,” says Luc, one of the founders of the project in Tubize. Co-housing is an intentional community of private homes with shared facilities (car-parks, dining rooms, gardens) and services (car-sharing and babysitting for instance). Residents get together for sport, social occasions, or to play board games. “It’s an artificial neighbourhood. The motivation to live in this kind of community is to connect to people and to know your neighbours,” says Luc, adding “though it’s not for everybody. Some people want their own garden, others don’t want to leave their house and see other people.” He believes it’s like a pendulum. “People gained their individual territory and their property. They fought for it for a few generations, but in the process, some things got lost: solidarity, knowing people, helping each other, being able to connect. There were a few generations who wanted to master nature, to master the environment, and now its shifted and they want to be part of it.”

David De Block

Owner, “De Velomaker”, Rabot-Blaisantvest, Ghent

The neighbourhood of Rabot-Blaisantvest in Ghent rewards its inhabitants for commitment to clean streets with its own currency, called “Torekes”. David runs a bike shop here. “You get Torekes tokens for doing little things like planting flowers outside or cleaning the street. You can use them to buy stuff like groceries, too.” He says it’s good for the environment, for the local economy, but also for business.“ People have begun to do small deeds for the environment so that they can get bike repairs that they might not otherwise. Then I just have to call the organisers with whom I can exchange the tokens for cash. I don’t lose money on it. It’s a win-win situation.” About two or three people per month come and use the tokens in David’s shop, which they can sup- plement with cash. “I think it’s going to grow. Some are saving up the tokens to buy something bigger, and more people now clean the area in front of their door in exchange for tokens, which exist not really for people to question the economy, but more as a way to make our community more beautiful.”

Stéphanie Verloove (pictured on the left)

Participant, Swishing.be, Ghent

Stéphanie, by her own admission, has way too many clothes. “It’s such a shame to throw them away if I’ve only worn them once or twice. It’s a ridiculous waste of money.” Swishing was born in London out of a love of retail shopping combined with a desire to reduce consumption. Participants bring old clothes to swap with each other. Stéphanie believes its popularity has a lot to do with our addiction to “disposable clothes”. “Fashion is constantly changing,” she says. “People want to wear something new every single day, and only wear it a couple of times. We get involved in swishing to find some original clothes, but it’s also to do with the crisis. We don’t want to buy expensive pieces we’ll only wear once or twice.” The organisers of swishing.be emphasise the sustainability and ethical aspect of their events, but Stéphanie’s not convinced. “Some do it for ethical reasons, but I’m not sure everybody thinks like that. For me, it’s more about finding something original.” She sees no threat to traditional clothes retailers, as some trend watchers have prophesised.“ I’m not sure every woman has the time or the patience to go through piles and piles of old clothes!”

Delphine Thizy

“Consumer activist”, Agricovert group-buying collective, Brussels

Agricovert is one of a growing number of Belgian cooperatives that links consumers with local farmers. It’s based on the principal of collective buying power.“The idea is to get rid of the intermediaries, and to remind people that there is a human being behind the food you eat,” says Delphine, who initiated an Agricovert group in The Hub in Brussels. The platform gives the consumer a say in what’s produced and how the cooperative is run. “Agricovert is trying to get the customer to be more than just a customer – consumer activists as they’re called.” There’s also a big ecological and sustainable aspect. “It makes more sense to eat something that is locally grown and organic. It saves energy, because you don’t need to heat a greenhouse to grow tomatoes in the winter.” There’s an increasing amount of similar platforms springing up all over Belgium and Europe. “At some point people will realise it’s ridiculous to pay so much for organic products, and with the price of petrol, it doesn’t make sense to fly organic apples all the way from Chile.”

Pieter-Paul Mortier

Initiator, e-flux Time/Bank, STUK arts Centre, Leuven

“Time banking is nothing new,” says Pieter “but it’s often in times of economic crisis that it experiences a resurgence.” Time banking is an alternative economy whereby people offer their services in return for time/bank “hours”. Services might include web development, portraits, copy editing or translations; Pieter believes we all have useful skills to offer. “The good thing about time banking is it’s always about give and take, not just to take all the time, and it’s interesting to step out of the roller-coaster of the economic system and to organise our work in an alternative way. The main thing is that it questions our logic.” The e-flux time/bank platform came out of the art world “though it’s not exclusively for artists, and it’s not an alternative way to pay artists for their work. Artists already have many difficulties to make a living, and the last thing we should do is look for alternatives to pay them. Its more to just sometimes step out of the system and do something in a different way.”

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