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Bartering projects trade on Vancouver’s co-op culture

There is an appetite for sharing in the city, says Chris Diplock, who co-founded the Vancouver Tool Library

By Brenna Owen , in City Life , on November 23, 2017

In a city where people have embraced car-sharing and lending libraries, it may not be long before more bartering and co-operative ownership platforms take off.

Vancouver lending project the Thingery and the popular Toronto-based bartering community, Bunz, have set their sights on growth and new membership next year.

The platforms are two examples among a burgeoning array of consumption alternatives in an era where many face rising economic challenges.

Bunz first emerged as a private Facebook group in 2013 when a Toronto woman was strapped for cash and needed pasta sauce. Since then, it’s spawned more than 200 local Facebook groups and evolved into a mobile app with around 168,000 users across the country.

More than 15,000 users in Vancouver trade everything from haircuts to clothes. To members of the community, “Bunz” has become a colloquial verb, noun, and veritable way of “Bunz Life.”

There is an appetite for sharing in the city, says Chris Diplock, who co-founded the Vancouver Tool Library in 2011. The east Vancouver co-operative allows members to borrow tools they need for home and community projects. In 2016, he led research for a report called The Sharing Project.

“We’ve seen the evolution of the Vancouver Public Library, which created an innovation lab, and start doing musical-instrument lending. We’ve seen the tool library continue to be successful … and we see the growth of local car-sharing organizations.”

The Thingery concept design, via thethingery.com

Diplock’s newest venture is called the Thingery. Initially piloted as pop-ups in fall of 2016, thingeries are lending libraries for goods and gear housed in shipping containers. Three locations will launch in February 2018—one in Kitsilano and two in east Vancouver.

“I think one of the most appealing aspects [of the sharing economy] for Vancouver is how active we are and how much it costs to be active,” said Diplock. “Maybe you don’t want to back-country ski all the time, you want to test it out. I think that we want to connect over our shared passions, and shared equipment does lead to shared experiences, which leads to community connection.”

Get your unused items ready to trade

Bunz isn’t yet a city-wide phenomenon in Vancouver. But, with sharing on the rise, “Vancouver is the city we have chosen for 2018 to turn our expansion efforts towards,” said Eli Klein, publicity and partnerships manager at Bunz.

“I think Vancouver has a lot of things going for it that would resonate with the Bunz community, whether it be economic needs, green focus, waste diversion, and just the sense of community that comes from Bunz.”

Sixty per cent of Bunz users are in their 20s to mid-30s. Not coincidentally, that is a cohort saddled with an average of $22,084 in student debt upon graduation, according to an Ipsos poll from September 2017.

“Seventy-five per cent of that population is women, and 70 per cent of what they’re trading is clothing,” added Klein.

Bunz users in Vancouver have topped the 10,000 mark, which is “like a magic kind of tipping point for how it self-sustains,” said Klein.

Samantha Young has traded in Vancouver for about a year now.

“There’s a lot of people who are into alternative lifestyle choices, and totally fine with getting things that are used. I just feel like it’s so expensive here that there’s this whole culture of, “‘obviously we have to do what’s going to work for us,'” the 27-year-old said.

Bunz user Telia Hsieh met Grace Mesina on a rainy November night to trade a cocktail set for some yarn. She’ll use the wool to weave wall hangings, which she sells on her Etsy shop. Between them, Grace and Telia have made more than 60 trades.

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New technology presents opportunities, challenges for an age-old practice

Bartering and sharing are not new.

“Trading stuff for stuff is how humans have exchanged things forever,” Klein acknowledged. But he thinks current economic challenges mean it’s particularly important for people to find “commerce scenarios that work for them.”

While Bunz and projects like the Thingery are certainly compatible, they differ in their approaches to collaborative consumption.

“A lot of things have to line up in order for a peer-to-peer market to work,” said Diplock, who favours place-based sharing and co-operative ownership because they’re convenient and reliable.

A sticker indicates a designated Bunz trading zone at The Good Stuff smoothie shop on West 10th Ave.

Athough these new sharing platforms are designed to help mitigate high costs of living, they may not always serve those who need them most.

Dr. Andy Hira, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, has explored the implications of sharing economies for vulnerable communities.

“Everything I’ve seen, even where it’s designed to benefit marginalized communities, has been set up by people who are middle-class, and well-educated. The potential is there to help marginalized groups. The paradox is if those marginalized groups either don’t have the time or the access or the knowledge of how to use IT to be able to take advantage of this.”

Hira also warned against conflating multi-billion dollar players like Uber and Airbnb with more grassroots sharing platforms. Both shake up tradition consumption paradigms, but in drastically different ways.

Klein hopes Bunz will continue as a “living, breathing, organic blueprint for how people will consume in the future.”

Diplock has similar aspirations.

“Hopefully the Thingery provides a model that allows a community to raise its hand and say, ‘I want one,’ and we can just kind of put a container on the street and get to work.”

In the sharing economy, people get what you give. Many will simply use Bunz and lending libraries as practical tools. Others will form lasting relationships borne of a trade.