Sharing everything from our homes to our pets is now big business, and a woman from Yorkshire is leading the way. Helen Leavey reports.
BENITA Matofska’s inspiration to change the world came when she gave a speech alongside singer and activist Bob Geldof and South African apartheid opponent Desmond Tutu at a charity event six years ago.
She was so humbled by the two men that she decided she would also try to tackle some of the planet’s complex problems. She decided to help people share the countless millions of things that are bought and then left un-used, or under-used, by owners.
“The idea of sharing would not leave me alone. It woke me up at night,” says Benita, a former TV journalist from Leeds. She quit her charity sector job and started working on ways to encourage people to share the Earth’s resources more effectively. “At the beginning, people thought I was like an alien because of my ideas.”
Now, though, Benita is inspiring people to take part in the sharing economy. The 48-year-old set up her own website, Compare and Share, in 2013. The aim is to allow people to use the internet to share the world’s estimated £3.5 trillion worth of spare goods.
“Our vision is to open up the sharing economy, just as eBay opened up the second-hand goods market,” she says. More than 350 investors have already funded her website to the tune of £275,000.
Benita is at the heart of a technological and multi-billion-pound storm helping to change the way we live and interact. The sharing economy is about sharing goods and services. It’s about recycling and swapping things that we don’t need, or can do without for a while. It’s about utilising under-used resources, whether we pay for them or get them for free. And although sharing is nothing new, digital technology has given this movement a new lease of life, revolutionising eating, working and holiday habits. Examples of this new economy include car sharing, clothes swapping and even volunteering to do chores for cancer patients.
People share to save or make money, to connect with others, and to do something good for the planet, says mum-of-two Benita, adding that people in poorer areas benefit more from the sharing economy than those in affluent places, as they can access goods and services they might not be able to buy themselves.
Now based in Brighton, Benita had an early experience of sharing. Aged 18 she drove from Washington DC to Los Angeles for virtually nothing through an “autodriveaway” firm, which matches up people who want to travel with car owners who need their vehicles moving. Thirty years on, Benita is helping big organisations like IKEA and Macmillan Cancer Support to engage with sharing.
Some people are involved in the sharing economy without even realising it. They might go on eBay or rent out a room. Maybe they bake cakes for colleagues, recycle tins or buy charity shop clothes. But now even the Government is getting involved
Last year, it pledged to make the UK a global leader in the field and set up a sharing economy action group. A new trade body, Sharing Economy UK (SEUK), was launched to champion the sector, which could be worth £9bn to the UK by 2025. And Leeds and Manchester have been singled out for pilot projects – £700,000 of government money will pay for a transport venture in Leeds and a health scheme in Manchester, although details are still being finalised.
There is already plenty of sharing going on in Yorkshire. St Nicks is a 24-acre nature reserve in York on the site of a former rubbish dump. It is now a haven for birds, butterflies and even the endangered water vole. With an environment centre for community projects and 150 volunteers, it’s the very epitome of the benefits of sharing; turning something under-used into something useful.
In Leeds students have set up a blog (sharingleeds.co.uk) offering tips on how to share various items and in Harrogate there’s a cafe for vulnerable people, who pay what they think their meal is worth. In York there’s a similar venture, Yourcafe, aimed at everyone, irrespective of income or background. Both cafes were inspired by the Leeds-based Real Junk Food Project, where volunteers collect food that is just out of date but still edible, and turn it into delicious meals.
Yourcafe volunteer Margaret Hattam says the group was given almost 1.5 tonnes of food last year and served almost 700 meals. “The sharing economy is at the heart of what we do. People have always exchanged services and resources, but perhaps the innovation is that now we are sharing food with people we don’t know.”
The sharing economy brings people together, as I’ve discovered through my own experiences. As a family, we often stay in other people’s homes while they stay in ours – holidays without accommodation costs. But we’ve also benefited in other ways because of these home exchanges. My two children have attended French day camps, arranged with the help of families whose homes we were staying in. Last summer we welcomed a French family back to their converted barn and had a cup of tea together before we left. When we arrived home we saw they had bought us a new toaster as ours had broken whilst they were in our house.
HomeExchange.com is just one firm promoting house swapping; it says it has facilitated more than one million exchanges globally since it began in 1992. The wife of Jim Pickell, the firm’s president, even gave birth in a borrowed house. Many people might be worried about letting strangers into their homes, but Pickell tries to allay their fears. “You never exchange with a stranger,” he says. “You have so much information about your exchange partner: photos of their home, family and neighbourhood; referrals from prior exchanges, and lots of communication by email and phone.”
Goole bookkeeper Janet Halkon, 68, has enjoyed several home exchanges, once swapping her two-bedroomed flat and even her Ford Fiesta for a 12-person house and seven-seater car in Australia. She also uses accommodation website Airbnb, paying the people whose homes she stays in. She says: “It’s nice to stay with someone who makes you feel connected to the local culture. One Australian lady even picked us up from the station.”
There is a lot of money to be made out of this growing urge to share the planet’s limited resources to maximum effect. Spotify, the music streaming service, has over 20 million subscribers. People can easily find a lift online and pay towards the driver’s petrol costs. Home exchange websites charge an annual membership fee and people who swap homes have more money to spend on enjoying themselves when travelling.
People are now making better use of all sorts of things, from houses, cars and old rubbish dumps to leftover food and dogs. The big question is – what’s next?
Fancy borrowing the family pet?
AMONG the more unusual things being shared are pets. In the UK and Ireland people can lend or find dogs through BorrowMyDoggy.com.
Set up in 2012, it already has about 250,000 paying members. One of them is Angela Taylor. She and her daughters Sophie, 12 and Erin, nine, are often seen strolling by York’s River Ouse with various canine friends.
“Sidney the Pug stays for one or two nights, and Hugo and Lucy are Bedlington whippets who we have for up to a week at a time,” said Angela. The family has also become friendly with the dog owners.
“We’ve shared walks, cups of tea and been to agility training with them. Hugo and Lucy’s owners bake us bread and cakes and Sidney’s owners give the children gifts.”