Can alternative currencies see us pay our way out of economic decline?


The ongoing effects of the recession have left us all cash poor. Our time and skills, however, offer renewed forms of assets.

We all know time is money; more for some than others. But paying for things with our time rather than cash could be the way for more of us to continue to enrich our lives without breaking the bank.

Insight agency Canvas8 notes in its upcoming Keeping TABS trend report that a new economy is being built around “alternative currency”, with more companies, individuals and communities looking more towards a model of cashless skill and time exchange.

Canvas8’s report notes the phenomena of “time banking”, and Bartercard. Both have been around for some time but now their principles of value exchange have a new relevance in the current crumpled economy.

Time banking, for those who don’t know, is where people who are members of a specific local time bank can give an hour of their time to receive an hour of somebody else’s. For example, I dabble in amateur photography, so I could volunteer to take photos for a local school event. Each hour I give entitles me to a time bank credit. I wouldn’t be restricted to spending my credits with the same people I gave my time to, but I could use them to gain services from other people in the time bank group. I could take my pick, depending on the kind of people that are in the group.

On the Timebanking website, you can search for your local group. I found one near me that has 36 members who have traded a total of 869 hours between them. Group members offer skills such as carwashing, cooking, building work, gardening, washing and ironing, tutoring, sewing, house sitting, computer and language skills and even a lift in someone’s car.

Canvas8’s report claims that there are 103 active time banks and 133 in development in the UK; the concept’s popularity increasing because it is “built on the premise that everyone has something to contribute”.

Bartercard, on the other hand, operates in much the same way, but on a business level. Its website gives the example of a hairdresser swapping haircuts for accounting services from a local firm, although, like time banking, the credits you gain from the services you give can be spent across all of the organisation’s members. Businesses can even use Bartercard to donate to charities with goods and services instead of cash.

Bartercard has 75,000 members operating in six countries, while 400,000 US companies barter each year.

Some brands have already picked up on the exchange principle, such as the Orange Rock Corps programme, which rewards volunteers with concert tickets.

Canvas8’s report suggests there are “opportunities for brands to support new ideas of wealth…and support and reward this form of community involvement to establish long term engagement with consumers”.

Certainly brands can work more with each other through platforms such as Bartercard. However I would suggest brands wanting to sign up to their local time banking group consider their strategy carefully, as Canvas8 also says that this new alternative currency economy is being driven by a “high distrust in traditional organisations”; presumably governments, and the corporate sector.

Time banking would only work for brands whose identity and tone already reflects a conscientious community feel, such as The Co-op, Body Shop, Innocent or Green and Blacks (the latter three all with majority corporate stakeholders of course). And secondly, brands should be volunteering their staff and their services to charity without getting anything back (but love of course) which jars slightly with the concept of time banking.

Brands can, however, facilitate time banking, or be the face of time banking, bring time banking to the masses, or encourage and incentivise individuals to be part of it. Brands who become champions of time banking have much to earn for this achievement, not least some applause from David Cameron that the Big Society is finally catching on.

If, as Canvas8 suggests, alternative currency is to become a widespread form of social exchange, brands should definitely be in on it.

They should not be looking to cash in, except in the form of increasing brand integrity, positive awareness and loyalty, which, even within an alternative currency world, equates to a healthy balance sheet.