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Originally published Monday, March 5, 2012 at 6:52 PM

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Collaborative consumption: Rent those clothes, don't buy

Consumerism is being redefined for the mobile age, and the model is spreading among professionals and families in ways that were little anticipated, even by the venture capitalists funding this new era of cooperative capitalism.

The Washington Post

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A power tie for a job interview, an educational puzzle for a teething 2-year-old, a fancy dress for a White House gala. A decade ago, we bought these items at the mall. Today, we rent them with a smartphone.

Pay a monthly fee. Rent your object of desire. Return it when it bores or becomes useless. It's easy, on-demand, noncommittal.

Consumerism is being redefined for the mobile age, and the model is spreading among professionals and families in ways that were little anticipated, even by the venture capitalists funding this new era of cooperative capitalism.

Businesses such as Netflix and Zipcar have fueled this culture of borrowers and lenders. Experts have coined a term for the phenomenon: collaborative consumption. The sharing economy.

It's moving past Generation Y to reach a broader audience, just as a host of companies pave the way for the sharing of niche products.

"I've been renting the tartan plaid ties that are trendy right now," said Masai McDougall, 29, a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

"It's nice to try out styles without having to spend 100 bucks on a tie."

That's the sensibility that drove Zac Gittens, 28, and Otis Collins, 27, to create Tie Society in November.

The childhood friends run their business out of Gittens' row house in Washington, D.C. For a monthly minimum of $11, they mail members the sorts of designer ties found only in high-end department stores.

Clients select organically sanitized ties from 300 styles. When a subscriber tires of the ties or wants to try a different style, he mails them back and selects more.

The startup went to national in less than a month.

"These companies couldn't have existed five or 10 years ago ... without the ubiquity of an increasingly mobile Internet," said former AOL chairman Steve Case, founder of Revolution, an investment firm that has stakes in Zipcar and LivingSocial.

Entrepreneur Magazine valued the ride-sharing industry at $117 billion and the product-rental market at $85 billion. But in an era of virtual oversharing, doesn't all this push the paradigm a bit too far?

Not in the minds of Alice Wang, 30, and Pegah Ebrahimi, 31, who founded Spark Box late last year.

"We saw the idea of Netflix as very applicable to educational toys," Wang said. "Once we see a movie, its value plummets. It's the same with toys. Toys are very critical at one stage and become obsolete very quickly."

But the sanitation. The germ-spreading. Don't parents worry?

"My oldest son is diabetic, so I was concerned with how the toys were cleaned," Teimoori said. "But I talked with the company, and they described the process and how they're packaged" through a five-step organic process. "They allayed all my concerns."

Since January, Spark Box has tripled its membership and expects to reach profitability by year's end.

Tie Society, too, is having early success, doubling its membership in one month, and growing through word-of-mouth advertising — on Twitter, of course. Gittens says while most members are young, professional men, Tie Society counts women and retirees among its clients, too.

"We know the service is niche. Our market is smaller than movies," Gittens said. "A good number of men have to wear ties and don't want to invest in a collection. The majority of our members are young professionals entering the workforce. ... The service works for them."

Bill Burris, too, saw the value of renting essentials on demand and founded Rent Our Boxes, an eco-friendly moving-box company. He started the company in 2010 after he "got tired of getting ripped off on moving boxes."

He came up with the idea after his wife died. "I couldn't even find the boxes we needed, and when I did, I ended up spending $495 on them. ... I just thought 'There has to be a better way.' "

The Washington, D.C.-based company began franchising in November and plans to expand this year.

All this sharing seems to defy another deep-seated American value: ownership. We were once a country of garage sales and oversize closets.

But collaborative consumption mirrors a cultural change, a shift cemented in the past decade by tech whizzes in dorm rooms.

The rise of the sharing economy is deeply intertwined with our oversharing society. We're revising the privacy settings of our real lives, too.

"Facebook shifted the cultural norm of how much information you share in a big way," said Craig Shapiro, founder of Collaborative Fund, a venture-capital fund that invests in companies that subscribe to the sharing ethos. "In only one generation, we've applied this idea of sharing offline, and it's become socially acceptable to share ... the most personal of things."

Which is why it doesn't seem weird to share ties and toys with strangers. You've already shared your sonogram with 4,317 of your closest Facebook friends.

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