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25 October 2017

Me & My Mobike: Adventures in the Sharing Economy

The Chinese Mobike scheme has just hit my city of Newcastle upon Tyne, so on Monday I grabbed my camcorder and gave it a go – with hilariously sweaty results!

I've been mulling on the business model ever since. At 50p per half hour hire, I can't see the scheme being financially viable without other forms of income, yet there is no obvious advertising as there is on Boris bikes in London (and those still require a hefty subsidy from the taxpayer).

From a big 'S' Sustainability point of view, I'm still not sure of the benefits given the limitations of the bikes – as you will see in the video, you're not going to take them too far, so they're unlikely to reduce private car journeys. They may cut taxi journeys and reduce pressure on public transport. They may of course form a gateway to proper cycle commuting, but I'm always wary of tangential benefits – I like to see a clear path between investment and outcome.

So, the future of transport or a vanity project? Only time will tell, but I'm afraid I'm sceptical about their chances – more than happy to be proved wrong.

 

 

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14 April 2015

Five go mad in London

boys in London

I'm down in our capital city with the family for a short break. The two bigger boys were very keen to come because of various school projects, and the little one – well as usual he just has to lump it!

As usual, on holiday, I have my eyes peeled for anything sustainability-related.

I remember musing on my way back from Bruges back to Newcastle by train in 2009 that in Belgium you saw at least one solar array in every village or suburb, but virtually nothing on the English side of the Channel. Oh, how that has changed. Not only is there a huge amount of roof-mounted solar along the East Coast Mainline, but we passed at least 3 field-sized solar farms and plenty of wind turbines dotted here and there. It is no surprise to me now that UK solar installed capacity doubled in 2014 – you can see it.

We're staying at a genuine Airbnb house – a real family home as opposed to a regular rental – and our first proper use of the new sharing economy. The house is lovely, but you do have to put up with your host's tastes – there is no cafetiere, garlic press or, believe it or not, wine glasses. We can improvise on the former two, but bought them 4 cheap wine glasses (I hope that isn't taken as an insult as we can't take them with us). The other problem is trying to stop 3 rather excited and rambunctious boys from trashing the place...

Another thing I've noticed is you can now use a contactless debit/credit card in lieu of an Oyster card for London transport. This opens up the flexibility of London public transport for the casual visitor. Anything to remove barriers to the greener option wins in my book and, when my Oyster card runs out/gets lost again, I think I might give up on it.

As well as the tourist traps, yesterday we went to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London in Barnes, not that far from the heart of the City - amazing to see what you can achieve if you leave a little space for nature in our urban sprawl.

I know I'm an irrepressible optimist, but going on a holiday allows you to see things afresh in a way you don't on a business trip. I am utterly convinced that, no matter what the doomsters claim, we are moving in the right direction.

 

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8 September 2014

Fashion kills sustainability

tombstoneFor a newspaper from the Guardian stable that prides itself on its approach to sustainability, I winced when I read this in a Observer article on fashion yesterday:

The ability to recycle favourite dresses is being curtailed by sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

When the journalist said 'recycling', she didn't mean passing it on to a mate, selling it second hand or using the fabric for something else. No, she meant "wearing the same dress twice" - claiming women are afraid to do so as their friends will see this cardinal sin on social media. To a man who still wears dozens of garments over a decade old, this is an alien concept.

But it illustrates a much bigger point. Our modern design and manufacturing supply chains are capable of delivering us very high quality, low price products exceptionally quickly. But it is not quality or design that consigns those products to the bin - it's fashion. And by fashion I don't just mean clothes - Douglas Coupland nailed the phenomenon in his 1991 novel 'Generation X' when he referred to 'semi-disposable Swedish furniture'. Even a ship will be scrapped when the value of its steel is thought to be higher than keeping the ship in use, rather than when it 'wears out'.

Our problem is that the 'make do and mend' concept is unlikely to storm mainstream consumer culture. There are other models which can help:

  • The service economy: despite the slip on 'recycling', the Observer article did reference services where you can rent high fashion items for one night only, so each dress will be worn dozens of times. You can do this with everything from a luxury yacht to industrial solvents.
  • The circular economy: designing products to be recycled continuously means short product lives doesn't have to be dependent on extracting more raw materials and creating more waste.
  • The sharing economy: purchasing a product and then sharing it with others. When my parents moved into their house 40 years ago, they found it came with half a hedge trimmer!
  • The retro economy: many well designed products have as much value when they are old as when they are brand-spanking new.

In the meantime, I will be recycling - in the true sense of the word - my favourite pair of cords as I have worn them threadbare. Don't think I'll be gracing the fashion pages of the newspapers anytime soon!

 

 

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11 July 2014

We need MORE pedantry in sustainability

pedantryMy name is Gareth and I'm a pedant.

There. Said it.

It really annoys me when a word or phrase with a particular meaning gets so diluted by use that it becomes meaningless. Take 'staycation' - it was originally coined to mean holidaying at home - as in in your house - but now seems to mean holidaying in your own country. Of course this is what many if not most people do anyway, so the phrase becomes meaningless.

So I got a bit het up when I saw this report on 'the circular economy'. It includes the 'sharing economy' and extended life cycles as elements of the circular economy. The problem is they're not related - eg you can have a sharing economy that's not circular and vice versa, and of course you can have both, or neither.

So what?

The circular economy is an aim in itself with very particular requirements. If you start bolting every other sustainability idea onto the side of it, you start to muddy the waters and make it harder to implement. The phrase becomes meaningless and the goal fades from view.

So let's say what we mean - and mean what we say!

 

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