Eun Ji-lee is nervous. It is the day before the 22-year-old faces the final hurdle to get into the MBA programme she desperately wants to be accepted for: the university interview.
She has made a list of dozens of possible questions and rehearsed the answers with her mother, but something is still missing: an outfit suitable for the occasion. In South Korea, appearance is a key to success - or reason for failure.
"What we must wear is clearly defined," says Eun. "For women it's a smart black skirt with a matching jacket and a white blouse." But her family can't afford such an outfit, which would cost, they estimate, about 415,000 won (HK$2,750). Her father is unemployed and their financial situation is dire.
So Eun has decided to pay a visit, with her mother, to a tiny shop in a flat in downtown Seoul. The Open Closet is a non-profit business that has been established for people like her; it rents outfits donated by people who no longer have use for them. Eun pays only 20,000 won for her interview outfit, chosen with the help of one of the employees.
"I learned about the organisation at a conference on the collaborative economy, and my older brother has already used it to get outfits for several job interviews," says Eun. "I think it's a great idea that allows everyone access to a key element at the beginning of their career."
The Open Closet is not, by any means, the only initiative of the sharing kind in the South Korean capital. In fact, this megalopolis of 10 million inhabitants has arguably become the centre of the global sharing economy, thanks to the vision of mayor Park Won-soon. Unlike officials elsewhere who are trying to restrain controversial companies such as Uber and Airbnb with legislation, Park believes that sharing does not pose a risk to the economy - in fact, he believes quite the opposite. And so, in September 2012, he launched a project as ambitious as it is exemplary: Seoul Sharing City, which, according to Park's presentation speech, is designed "to make better use of existing resources, both in the city and among its citizens, through sharing".
Park believes that this economic model "will promote positive social values and allow institutions to enrich the lives of residents with reduced spending". Thus, according to its declaration of intent, Sharing City seeks "the creation of a favourable legal framework and policies that encourage the emergence of collaborative economy businesses". And, thanks to the Seoul Metropolitan City Sharing Promotion Ordinance - enacted on December 31, 2012 - almost 50 companies are already operating under a clear premise: "There is a way of consuming without possessing."
Although it may sound revolutionary, this is not a new concept. "For centuries the act of sharing was a pillar of traditional society," said Park, in his presentation speech. "Back then we used to share work, items and food. In fact, it is when the words poomasi ["exchange of labour"] and dure ["a farmers' cooperative"] were coined."
It is believed that 21st-century IT infrastructure will allow the tradition to be revived in a much more effective manner.
"We have one of the best internet networks in the world - 97 per cent of the population have a broadband connection - and among the highest smartphone penetration rates [60 per cent] and use of social networks," explains Kwon Nan-shil, director of Creative Commons Korea (CCKorea), the company entrusted by the metropolitan government with the management of Sharing City. "These are perfect conditions for a collaborative economy.
"The goal is to solve some of the problems that arise in a society ruled by untamed capitalist consumerism: from the growing traffic jams to the increased number of suicides, pollution and the high cost of housing. They all can be mitigated by sharing."
Norizzang, a company dedicated to recycling old furniture, is another example of sharing Seoul in action. Its 13 employees collect what others discard and take it to their headquarters, built from several cargo containers and situated in an uncharacteristically shabby Seoul car park. Here, they dismantle the cabinets, tables and chairs they have collected and, with the reclaimed wood, create furniture that can be disassembled for easy transport.
"At first we had to go looking street by street, but now many people know us and call us when they want to get rid of some furniture," explains director Ahn Yeon-jung. "We also work closely with several low-income communities, which we provide with our furniture for community activities and workshops. We have even opened a 'furniture hospital', where people can repair broken furniture themselves, with the help of our employees, who are fond of DIY and have been trained in carpentry."
Norizzang has managed to expand thanks to a soft loan from Sharing City.
"We are a social enterprise trying to help change not only a sick economic system, but also the mentality that encourages it. We throw away many things that still work, either in their original state or refurbished," says Ahn.
"Sharing is the starting point," adds Kim Jin-young, one of Norizzang's employees. "But the goal is to create a lifestyle governed by common sense, and not by the laws of a market that, too often, bases its business model on deceptions like planned obsolescence. Many believe that a collaborative economy serves only to survive, and that isn't true. You can actually make money without wasting resources."
Last year, Norizzang did more than 200 million won worth of business and its revenue is growing 20 per cent annually.
"We are not an NGO; we want to have profits like any other business, but what marks the difference is the way in which we make that money," Kim says, while showing off the company's products, the prices of which range from the equivalent of HK$100, for a tray, to HK$3,000, for a table that seats four.
"We would like to start creating a union between different groups doing similar work to increase our social might," adds Ahn. "That's why Sharing City seems to us like a very interesting project. But there are still big challenges. The most important is the interaction between traditional and collaborative-economy companies."
"At the moment, Korean sharing companies are not large enough to represent a threat to the traditional sectors," says Kwon. "But there are cases, such as Uber or Airbnb, which are causing a lot of suspicion among taxi companies or hotels. However, we believe that social good should always prevail, not protectionism."
Hong Ji-young agrees. She runs SoCar, a vehicle-sharing company born three years ago that has faced criticism from rental companies.
"We have nearly 1,500 vehicles stationed in 600 parking spaces we rent throughout the city at subsidised prices, provided by Sharing City," she says. "Our 330,000 users pay for the time they use them, in 10 minute blocks, and they must do a round trip."
The idea is to allow SoCar members to enjoy the freedom a vehicle provides without having to buy one.
"There are two ways to share cars. One is ours, which is a service offered by a company with a B2C [business-to-consumer] business model. Another one, still banned in Korea, is sharing a private car with other users. So that's from client to client: C2C. We hope this year the government will amend the transport regulation, which is 40 years old, and allow SoCar to provide that second service."
For now, members tend to use the company's vehicles - it offers 12 models - for between one and three hours at a time.
"Most are men who want a car for a date. They pick up their partner at home, go to the cinema, and return her home," says Hong. "But there are also those who have shops and use our vans to go buy goods and take them to their establishment. And we also found an interesting phenomenon: while most of our customers are between 20 and 30 years old, an age at which many can't afford their own cars, and there are hardly any users between 40 and 50 years old, we see another peak in the number of users aged 50 and upwards: those who have decided to sell their car and join the community of SoCar."
The service, which is used 3,000 times a day, is very simple: "You just need to search on our website for the cars available in the area where you are and book one with your phone. The system guides you to the vehicle through GPS and a message from the smartphone's app unlocks the doors," says Hong, demonstrating each step on a minivan, parked in an upscale mall.
SoCar has been so successful that the company already employs 55 people. However, Hong notes, "the collaborative economy is still in its infancy", and adds that Asia lags Europe and the United States in its development.
"In the global market for car sharing [which includes Uber], for example, Asia accounts for only 9 per cent [of activity]." That's why Hong considers Sharing City to be very positive. Being backed by the city authorities increases user confidence and gives access to soft loans - more than 300 million won has so far been used by member companies - and official channels for promotion.
"What started as a personal project of the mayor is spreading to other South Korean cities," says Hong. "[Sharing City] can be an important element in raising awareness of the need to share among the population."
That is, perhaps, the most difficult goal to achieve. "Koreans have forgotten how to share," laments Kwon, at the CCKorea headquarters, a building also used by start-ups. "Therefore, to publicise what these social enterprises do, so people think about it, is as important as setting up the legal framework and economic incentives for them to exist in the first place. And that is our job as Sharing City managers."
CCKorea has undertaken other initiatives to help people save money. It has compiled a list of parking spaces in private buildings that are not used or are vacant during the day, when their owners are at work, and rents them out to scheme participants for less than it would cost to park on the street, the proceeds being used to maintain the buildings in which the owners live. And it has developed allotment gardens in poorer neighbourhoods.
"The government is trying to get the greatest social impact from a collaborative economy," says Kwon. "So, for example, it has launched a programme for students to rent rooms at prices far below those set by the market from elderly people living alone and seeking companionship. We know loneliness is one of the main elements that influence the high suicide rate among the elderly and that 50 per cent of homes are occupied by one or two people - and we believe this scheme can help reduce the suicide rate."
Moreover, CCKorea believes that senior citizens can also contribute to society by sharing something intangible: their knowledge. It has developed the Living Library, under the auspices of which people over the age of 65, "who are like a human book", give public talks about their experiences.
"We have already organised some 2,500 such events, with more than 24,000 people having engaged the public with the kind of fascinating stories that grandchildren have always loved listening to and are part of our heritage," says Kwon. "Putting them together not only helps keep the collective memory alive, it is also supporting older people who, too often, have to fight loneliness."
When admitting a business into the Sharing City stable, in addition to compliance with certain requirements - such as being a small or medium-sized concern or having undertaken a minimum number of social activities - CCKorea takes into account the social value of the proposals it receives. As a result, it has taken on some unusual initiatives, such as Church Plus, which has made an inventory of underused churches and offers them for ceremonies of all kinds at affordable prices; Kiple, a trader in clothing that has become too small for growing children; and E-Labour Sharing, which, in the spirit of poomasi, connects its users to exchange labour.
Moreover, the impact of Sharing City is not limited to South Korea. Hanintel, for instance, is a platform that puts Korean travellers in touch with compatriots living overseas who have a bed to offer. It aims to facilitate the travel of those who, as its vice-president Matt Lee explains, "want to see the world independently but are afraid or have difficulties in doing so".
Eighty per cent of South Koreans speak no English and "until now, most people opted for the security of a package tour", says Lee. "But more tourists now want to go on their own. The language is a barrier, and the culture is different. But travelling to the houses of South Koreans, who also tend to act as a guide, makes everything easier. And, in turn, we help many emigrants with limited resources."
He acknowledges that the hotel industry is not his company's biggest fan but "the internet can't be fenced" and he believes the time has come to push for legislation written with people, rather than big business, in mind.
"Airbnb is now leading the fight for a regulatory framework adjusted to the current situation, where the internet has enabled everyone to be a service provider. We are aware of the need to establish rules to ensure the safety and quality of what is offered, but that being complex to achieve and the possibility of it eroding the balance sheets of other companies are no reasons to ban it. Especially when there is an undoubted social benefit."
Lee M, who prefers not to reveal his given name, thinks otherwise. He owns a three-star chain hotel in Seoul and believes sharing companies represent unfair competition.
"Transactions closed there are totally opaque. The flats do not meet the requirements that are imposed on those of us who provide accommodation services, and I doubt that any of the owners who rent their homes pay tax on the income. And so it is with other services in other areas. This collaborative economy promotes a submerged economy, and damages the employment created by companies that obey the law."
Aware of the controversy, the Seoul authorities say "the Sharing City project is to be guided by a model of public-private governance and it will work with all involved parties to create an ecosystem that gives life to a social and participatory economic model". But, to the chagrin of the traditional business sector, the project is committed to providing support for emerging companies that would otherwise struggle: "Not only will it offer them financial assistance, but also human resources and consulting services," Kwon says.
Han Man-il, founder and chairman of The Open Closet, applauds the courage of the leaders of Seoul because he considers the sharing economy to be not only an effective way to avoid wasting resources but also an efficient model for the redistribution of wealth.
"One day, I saw the expensive suit I used to wear to go to job interviews sitting idle in the closet. I hadn't worn it since and I thought I could donate it for others to use, but no one offered this service."
Now, The Open Closet lends nearly 6,000 outfits and shoes donated by more than 1,000 people to almost 20,000 users.
"We also ask donors to write the story of those suits; how and where they were used. Most are success tales that inspire and give confidence to those who then wear the clothes."
Han becomes emotional when he remembers a working-class family who came to rent a suit for their terminally ill son.
"They wanted to take one last picture together in elegant outfits. Unwittingly, they chose a suit donated by a famous comedian. When they learned that, the mother wrote him a heartfelt letter, thanking him for his altruism and the laughter that he had managed to get from her son with the story he had written about his suit."
Han searches among the jackets hanging in perfect order and points out some that were donated by a former airport employee.
"He was left paralysed and, aware that he wouldn't need them, sent them here." Since then, they have been worn by, among others, a film student at the screening of his debut movie in Cannes, France, and by three young Dutch people who attended a reception given in Seoul by the Dutch king.
Han has just one goal, he says: "For people to learn to share and see the beauty in it."