What if you could live a cheaper, cleaner, more enjoyable and more sustainable life? Small community enterprises are making this possible by making a big impact in their cities, promoting community spirit and encouraging community involvement, using the principles of a “sharing economy.”
The term sharing economy has been around since the early 2000s and really evolved after the financial crash of 2008. The sharing economy is a form of collaborative consumption, often done through online platforms such as Uber and Airbnb, to name a couple. The concept allows people to lend or rent underused items, services and even housing.
April Rinne, founder and principal of April Worldwide, wrote a paper on the subject for the 2017 World Economic Forum. In it, Rinne defines the sharing economy as a “focus on the sharing of underutilised assets, monetised or not, in ways that improve efficiency, sustainability and community.”
Using creative and sustainable ways to save space, money and reduce waste, communities around Canada are using and getting involved in this popular minimalist movement. Here are four exciting initiatives making a difference in their communities locally, nationally and internationally.
Little Free Libraries
In 2009, Todd H. Bol of Minnesota built the first Little Free Library book exchange as a tribute to his mother. It launched a worldwide book-sharing movement. He also co-founded the Little Free Library non-profit organization and served as its executive director until his death in 2018.
His legacy lives on with the organization, which inspires a love of reading, builds community and sparks creativity by fostering neighbourhood book exchanges around the world. Through the Little Free Library, millions of books are exchanged each year, increasing access to books for readers of all ages and backgrounds.
The book-sharing boxes, known as Little Free Libraries, play an essential role by providing 24/7 access to books (and encouraging a love of reading!) in areas where books are scarce. Today, there are over 100,000 Little Free Libraries in more than 100 countries, including across Canada.
Food prepared for sale is required to be made in a public-health-approved kitchen, which can be very expensive for startups and small businesses, not to mention that the red tape at city halls can be tough to navigate. The Kitchen Collective, in Hamilton, is a vibrant, new non-profit that offers an affordable commercial kitchen and a culinary incubator for ambitious chefs. It’s designed to give aspiring entrepreneurs such as caterers, bakers and chefs the opportunity to use the facilities to prepare their fare to be sold or delivered elsewhere. One such example is member Eric De Garie, who produces a line of butter tarts using the facilities at the Kitchen Collective, which he then sells at farmers’ markets. The Kitchen Collective also offers a variety of workshops—from canning to photography lessons to supporting startups creating their own promotional materials—as well as food demos and pop-up shops.
Then there are hot kitchens. A “hot” kitchen is a commercial kitchen that can be rented by the hour. Restaurants can benefit from the extra income by renting out their kitchen when they are closed or not busy. Likewise, small and startup businesses, caterers, bakers and chefs can use the space to prepare foods to sell at various venues and farmers’ markets. Alimentary Initiatives, for example, manages a variety of hot kitchens across the Greater Toronto Area, where customers can pay by the hour with incurring costly overheads, while the kitchens themselves earn a side income. It’s a win-win for all.
Tool Lending Libraries and Repair Cafés
With the tool lending community initiative, members can share many items, such as tools, party equipment, gardening equipment, sports equipment and toys, for a low annual membership fee. Tool lending libraries are located all over Canada, including the Toronto Tool Library, the Sharing Depot and the Makerspace in Toronto. The tool lending libraries are a vibrant community resource, offering the opportunity to do projects around the home without the big price tag and the need for storage.
Similarly, Repair Cafés have popped up everywhere, offering help with restoring everything from electronics and small appliances to computers, jewelry, bikes and more. The first Repair Café started in Amsterdam in 2009 and has since spread globally, with more than 1,400 located worldwide.
Clinics are run by volunteers, and in some communities, neighbours help neighbours learn how to repair items. At the Repair Café in Toronto, there are monthly gatherings where volunteer “fixers” help visitors learn how to repair for free, keeping treasured items out of landfills (at the time of writing, however, Repair Café Toronto events are on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
When the shelves at our local supermarket were suddenly emptied of staple goods and vegetables due to the pandemic, we were abruptly reminded of our reliance on the supermarket to feed us. A renewed interest surged for people to grow their own food and feed themselves and others. In April 2020, the mayor of Brampton, Ontario, Patrick Brown, launched a city-wide program to distribute seeds and plants to residents so that they could grow their own gardens and share the surplus with local community organizations. For those without their own plot of land, however, community gardens have played a bigger and bigger part over the years, especially in urban areas.
Community gardens give groups of people who wish to grow their own plants and produce the opportunity to do so. Spaces are divided into plots by the city and each plot is assigned to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. The gardens are often run by local groups in conjunction with the city, and many offer educational opportunities for schools and residents. Their growth in popularity means that there are now waiting lists. Still, today, there are hundreds of community gardens across the Greater Toronto Area and Canada, with users producing fresh, sustainable produce for their own use, as well as for sharing in the community.
Sustain Ontario, in conjunction with Hamilton-Wentworth Green Venture and other partners, is working toward an Ontario-wide network for community gardens where objectives will include identifying common challenges and opportunities, sharing success stories, tools and resources, and influencing community gardening policy at the provincial level.
Unfortunately, many community gardens and allotments have closed due to COVID-19 lockdown measures. But it is not stopping people from learning to grow their own produce from their gardens and window boxes. Gardening expert and author Lorraine Johnson recently launched a Facebook group called Grow Food Toronto. The group’s mandate is simple: “Plant food. Lots of it. If you can and wherever you can. Share the food.”
It’s a call that’s reminiscent of both the First World War and the Second World War, when Victory Gardens were encouraged for every home to alleviate food shortages. Today, growers are encouraged to share their produce as a tangible way to help others through this time and in the months ahead.
From food to books, tools and other resources, community initiatives like these show how bringing people together is as easy and sustainable as sharing our knowledge and resources.
An editor with 15-plus years in the publishing business, Catalina Margulis’ byline spans travel, food, decor, parenting, fashion, beauty, health and business. When she’s not chasing after her three young children, she can be found painting her home, taming her garden and baking muffins.