The Library of Things

“If everybody in the world consumed resources at the rate we do in the UK, we would need 3.5 planets to sustain us

This was the realisation that prompted three friends, Emma Shaw, Rebecca Trevalyan, and Sophia Wyatt to start The Library of Things in 2014.  They did so as they believed that consumerism was not working and, as Rebecca points out, they wanted to cut down on waste, help their community and reduce the impact on the environment.  Hence, they source, service and maintain items that are used infrequently by consumers and rent them out at approximately 10 per cent of the new purchase price. All of the items are sourced from the manufacturer and 90 per cent of the borrowers say they now have more money to spend on priority items like food and heating.

They got the idea from similar ventures in Berlin and Toronto and trialled it initially with their neighbours in their local library in south London. They then raised £15,000 in crowd funding and used it to test the concept more fully from two shipping containers over an 18-month period with 400 items and a team of local volunteers. As they say, “it was wonderful and tiring!” but it worked and “helped us work out which things were in demand.” They were not only able to streamline their stock holding but recognised that the community benefitted. Some 75 per cent of the borrowers claimed to feel better connected to their community because of The Library of Things while 60 per cent indicated that they would now be more likely to repair or recycle items than before.

As well as hiring out a range of useful items, they also organise a programme of events that focuses on helping people learn new skills. As one participant acknowledged “It was fun, plus I am now confident in handling an electric drill – I no longer have to nag my boyfriend to do some small DIY tasks around the house!”.  Again, such courses also enable the participants and their instructors to make new friends and become more integrated into the community.

Having proved the concept, they opened 6 outlets in London in 2021 and attracted over 1300 new borrowers who hired some 2000 times and saved £30,000 in so doing. However, as Rebecca appreciates, “we soon realised the community value in the project. It’s not just about saving money, but getting together and learning new skills”. Importantly, though, borrowing not buying saved 25 tons of CO2 and there are now over 300 locations across the UK that have indicated that they want a Library of Things too. To help facilitate this expansion they are developing an explanatory start-up toolkit and offering training programmes to enable others to set up their own libraries.

Initially The Library of Things was a not-for-profit social enterprise limited by guarantee, relying on donations, grants, philanthropy, sponsorship and volunteering for its survival. The founders recognised that this would not sustain the growth plans they had for the business. However, they were not comfortable with a standard for profit company with “restrictive top- down structures such as boards of trustees, or all-powerful, profit-motivated shareholders”. Rather, they wanted to protect the mission and for the business to be mission driven.  According to Rebecca they wanted to “make the organisation accountable to the community and for our members to be on a genuine peer-to-peer level”. So, they created a new governance structure whereby

  •  the Directors are legally obliged to consider people and planet equal to profit in decision making.
  • 85% of the revenue earned from borrowing covers operating costs and 15% goes to the host institution or into a fund for community activities
  • An independent trust acts as the guardian of the company’s values and ensures The Library of Things stays true to its mission.
  •  3 share classes ensure that the decision-making power is balanced between the 3 Directors of The Library of Things Ltd, the Directors of the Things Trust and the members and shareholders.

As a consequence of such changes, The Library of Things is now very much a Harmonious Enterprise. Its objectives are to address SDGs 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and 15 (Life on Land) but also to Reduce Inequalities (SDG 10), to Create Partnerships for the Goals (SDG17) and to contribute to Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (SDG 9). It is introducing a new, more democratic way of doing business in what is a growing post pandemic sharing economy – an economy in which it is stakeholder rather than shareholder satisfaction that needs to be taken into consideration.

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