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The case against owning: sharing equipment at the Fritidsbanken leisure library

We all have used book libraries but what about a leisure library that allows you to try new sports by sharing outdoor equipment that you would otherwise only use a few times a year? Fritidsbanken (“leisure bank”) in Sweden is a sports and outdoor library where people can borrow skis, ice skates, snowboards, wheelchairs, electric cargo bikes, tents, fishing rods, and much more, completely free, without a deposit, or an ID. In a short time, Fritidsbanken grew from a single leisure bank in a small town to being present in over 40% of the country’s municipalities, lending out 1.4 million pieces of equipment last year.

Working together with municipalities, Fritidsbanken Sweden is a non-profit, national association that owns the Fritidsbanken brand. Trust is a central philosophy of Fritidsbanken, so is a waste-free society, grounded in equality and accessibility through the sharing of leisure goods. Its achievements in supporting a healthier, more sustainable, and more egalitarian society has been recognised through various national awards for outstanding contribution in social effort, children sports, recycling, youth engagement, integration and climate. In this interview with Henric Byström, Head of Communication, we explore what personal stories that prompted the foundation of the leisure bank, what societal shifts supports Fritidsbanken mission, and the role of trust in people in its success.

Could you tell us about the story about how and why Fritidsbanken was set up?

The story started in 2012, with the deacon in the Swedish church, Carina Haak. She worked in a small village north of Karlstadt called Deje, with a population of about 3000. As a deacon, she met two moms who told her that they plan to keep their kids at home on sick leave during the school’s ice-skating outing because they couldn’t afford to buy ice skates, and they didn’t want their kids to be embarrassed about it.

Photo (c) Fritidsbanken

Carina thought, “It’s strange that you can borrow books at a library. Why can’t you borrow skates?” She Googled it thinking that must be a place for it, but couldn’t find anything. She felt determined to find a solution to this problem, so she connected and teamed up with a contact at the local municipality, and together started to collect items, talk to people, and spread the word.

During the autumn of 2012, they collected various items and in January 2013 they opened Fritidsbanken. In its first year, Fritidsbanken lent out about 1000 pieces of equipment. In this small village, that was a huge success!

How did this one original Fritidsbanken spread to other cities?

At the time when Carina, and the municipality officer set up the prototype, there was no plan about spreading to other cities around Sweden, but the idea was duplicated in two new municipalities in the second year. That is when it was decided to open up the idea and run it as a non-profit franchise. So if a municipality wants to start Fritidsbanken, we have certain conditions (they don’t buy things, only collect through donation, and everyone can borrow from them) that they have to agree on. And if they do agree, these municipality actors become members of the non-profit association Fritidsbanken Sweden and thereby get the right to use the brand.

What roles do the municipalities and the association play in running the stores?

Knowledge sharing and internal communication is really important. If one store does something that is successful, then we try to share that with all the other stores, or if a store does something that doesn’t work, we want others to avoid that mistake again. We have a newsletter going out every month. We can communicate with internal groups on Facebook, and we also have a news channel within our borrowing network system. But it could also be email, online and in-person meetings

Given your vast experience of working with municipalities, what is the key in developing good relationships and convincing them about joining the project?

We need to have meetings with the politicians and we also need to have meetings with officials in charge inside the municipality such as a mayor. We learned in the process that we need to reach out to the highest level actors in each municipality. In the beginning we had meetings with people with responsibility, for example, in the leisure department in the municipality. But that was not enough. We need to develop the project with the people who are actually in charge of finance. If we don’t have meetings with them to explain the project, then they might not secure enough resources to run Fritidsbanken. We also learned how beneficial it is if the municipality actors cooperate with different departments of the municipality as they can each use Fritidsbanken in different ways.

Photo (c) Fritidsbanken

How are you financed? Is there a membership fee?

Fritidsbanken Sweden is a non profit organisation, financed by other foundations and grants. We don’t have any sponsors, such as companies. We choose not to have that. There’s also a membership fee from the municipalities which is quite new. We only have had that for one year and the fee at the moment is about €750. It’s not so much, but when you have many, it helps out.

Could you tell us how the borrowing of equipment works? What are the rules?

It’s very basic. You come to Fritidsbanken, you choose what you want, and the only thing that you leave is your name and your mobile number. If you don’t have a Swedish mobile number, then we ask for your email address. But that’s the only thing. You can borrow for up to 14 days as much as you can use for this period, as much as you can carry. Should something happen to break, we will try to fix it, and if that doesn’t work, you will not be liable for compensation.

What is your goal with the leisure bank, and what kind of uses do you target?

People give us the thumbs up because they view that the leisure bank is good for different people: for those who can’t afford to buy their own stuff, for young people, for those who want to get out of their house and move. The problem is that they might not include themselves as a target group. Just like a library Fritidsbanken is for everyone, regardless of who you are.

We want people to be active. We sit so much today, and are less active than we have been before. This is a way to make activities more accessible because almost all kinds of activities you need some equipment for. We want to make it easy for people to be active.

Fritidsbanken is perfect if you want to try something that you haven’t done before. It’s also great if you want to do something, but not on a regular basis, like cross country ski. You might do it only one or two days a year, and not more. It’s not a good idea to have skis in my garage if I only use them for a few days a year. It’s better that I borrow the skis. We have so many things that we don’t use. We have it because someday we might need it.

Photo (c) Fritidsbanken

50% of the users are 20 years old or younger. But the social groups are very wide, and that is a part of our strategy. Having kids among our main beneficiaries reflects our history: after all, we were founded because we perceived an economic problem where kids from poor families were excluded from participating in activities.

Fritidsbanken is also offering para-sports equipment for people living with  disability. Could you tell us a little bit about your services for them, and how it can impact their lives?

Being able to borrow para-sports equipment means they’re being included in activities or in societal relationships. We realised some years ago that if we say that Fritidsbanken is for everyone, then we must be for everyone, there must be equipment for everyone. And we also realised we don’t have many items for disabled people, or people in wheelchairs. It is our mission to increase our range.

If you can’t ride a traditional bicycle, you can have a hand bike, a bike that you can use with your arms; or if you are in a wheelchair and want to ski, there are special skis where you can sit. There are quite a lot on the market, but they are so expensive. If you want to buy an ordinary bike, then maybe it costs €1000. But this special bike used by people with disabilities is at least €6000, As it is so expensive, most people can’t afford to buy them and they are not given it, they are not supported with that from the regions. It’s up to them if they want to buy it.

While all our equipment is donated, we don’t get these kinds of para-sports equipment easily because they are so expensive. So we realised we need to find other ways to include them in our services.

One way is that the municipalities buy these equipment, maybe one or two, three a year. We have also made arrangements with local organisations that own equipment that don’t use them regularly, so people can borrow these equipment through us. They are not owned by us, but they can borrow it through us. This is a new approach because it’s not important that we own all the items. We only want people to get access to them.

What are the challenges of the organisation overall?

Finance is probably the most challenging aspect of running Fritidsbanken. At the moment municipalities have a hard time with rising costs and inflation. It’s quite tough. That means they need to decrease their expenditure. At the same time people are struggling with high electricity and gas bills which actually makes people turn to us more. We get new people coming to us. So when the funding towards services by the municipalities decreases, the demand for the leisure bank actually increases. We try to have long-term financial security, we would like not to focus on our financing every day, every year. We would like to have three to five years financed.

Photo (c) Fritidsbanken

Another challenge is about us growing exponentially. Last year we lent out 1.4 million items, the year before it was 900,000. That is challenging as well because that means that we must do more repairs. Everything is just more, more equipment keeps coming in. People donate every day. We have issues with storage, we need bigger storage. Everything is growing all the time and that’s a challenge actually. Which is of course also great!

What do you contribute your success to? In a short time, you have grown from having one single leisure bank to now being present in over 40 percent of the country’s municipalities.

At the moment there are 130 leisure banks across Sweden, covering a little bit more than 40% of the municipalities. The goal is of course 100%.

I attribute our success to a few factors. I think our idea was born at the right time. As I said before, people are less active today, they are less healthy. Municipalities are aware of this issue, and have some kind of responsibility to tackle it. That is one reason.

Photo (c) Fritidsbanken

The other is the climate challenges, depleting resources and the lack of sustainability. We can’t continue to just consume more and more. We need to in some way do something different. And this is different.

It’s also quite unique that people donate to the municipalities. I don’t think that has happened before. But here people do, they give away things that are worth quite a lot of money to the municipality. They have heard about Fritidsbanken and they think this is a good thing, they are happy to contribute to it.

Also last winter was very good in Sweden in terms of snow. That helps out because skis and skates are the most popular things to borrow. It is a unique circumstance in Sweden that leisure activity, with a strong emphasis on skiing and skating is very expensive.

Based on the vast number of items you lend out, you are very-well known in society. How do people find out about the leisure bank?

We are very well-known in society, through word of mouth, the visibility of the stores in the local neighbourhood but also through the media. Topics such as climate, sharing economy, health are on the agenda more and more, at least on a local basis. About a thousand media articles are published a year about the leisure bank. They are mainly local, but we also have some national coverage. It worked out really well as we wanted coverage from the media from the start as we had no money to advertise.

Is there openness from the government to learn from you or involve you in policy discussions on sustainability or sharing economy?

At the national government level we have been invited to different workshops around different policy matters such as how to get the Swedes to be more physical, active, but also about the role of circular economy. We think that we now are quite known in the Swedish government. We have had several ministers, and politicians visiting Fritidsbanken, and they in turn talk in public about their experiences with the leisure bank quite a lot. So I can say we influence them to an extent. 

Photo (c) Fritidsbanken

We also inspired others to start up sharing economy services in other sectors: for instance, you can now borrow musical instruments and other cultural equipment in at least two cities. I know that book libraries have now started to include musical instruments.

What is the role of trust in your business model?

Some people ask how the leisure bank works because we don’t ask any information about our customers. They can borrow items and leave the shop with things that are worth quite a lot of money. But we only ask for their name and telephone number.

It is about trust. We trust you that you come back with what you borrowed, and people are not that used to being trusted these days.

We had a Syrian customer who lived in Sweden for about two years and came to borrow items. He showed his ID but the staff said, “We don’t need that, we only need your name and telephone number.” He was quite shocked and said this was the first time since he moved to Sweden that someone trusted him, that he didn’t have to prove who he was. It was quite a moment for him, and he got emotional.

I think it is important for everyone to feel that they are trusted. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are young or old, if you’re trusted, then hopefully you will return that trust. Many ask us about what proportion of the equipment is not returned. At the moment it stands at 1%, I think at book libraries 2% of books are not returned. So it works.

Support the Leisure Bank

There are several ways to support Fritidsbanken. The most common thing is to donate equipment. But if have spare time, leisure banks need volunteers to help with everything from lending to sharpening skates. Contact your nearest leisure bank for more information.

Interview by Sophie Bod.

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