The Sharing Economy: Love It or Leave It?
As you’ve likely noticed, sharing is having a resurgence. The new sharing economy has created so much buzz that it even has a new name: collaborative consumption. With the aid of online tools and smartphone apps, people are sharing camping and sports gear, cars, spare bedrooms, and even jobs. But with the surge has come a heated debate about what truly qualifies as sharing and whether we ought to embrace or reject this new model.
In high-tech circles, platforms like Airbnb and Uber are heralded as disruptive technologies that can transform our old consumer economy into a new economy that values access to goods and services more than the acquisition of stuff. These companies claim they’re breaking open the seller-buyer relationship, allowing anyone to be an entrepreneur and put idle assets to use.
Naysayers counter that much of what’s touted as “sharing” is just crafty capitalism practiced by companies that make money off consumers without investing in infrastructure. Last year, Uber made more than $210 million, but doesn’t have any taxis; Airbnb will soon be the world’s largest lodging company, but doesn’t own a single hotel. Critics say such services may help drivers or amateur lodgers bring in extra income, but concentrate the greatest benefits in the hands of investors at the expense of the sharers themselves, displaced service providers like cab drivers or hotel staff, and municipalities that depend on hotel and other taxes to provide essential services.
So, it’s complicated. But rather than either write off the sharing phenomenon or blindly hail it as a great leap forward, let’s remember what we value about sharing and use that to take the measure of sharing economy companies and initiatives.
Like anyone who had a sibling, I first learned about sharing as a toddler. We were taught to share because it’s nice to do.
As an adult, I quickly learned sharing isn’t just about being nice – it’s also good for your pocketbook. Pooling funds to buy big-ticket items with friends and neighbors, or sharing what we own, allows us access to more stuff without paying the full price of ownership. Sharing promotes equity by increasing people’s access to stuff they couldn’t otherwise buy themselves. It also builds community, since we have to talk to each other to share things. You can’t borrow a snow shovel from your neighbor if you don’t know each other!
The more I learned about the environmental costs of hyperconsumption, the more I also saw sharing as a strategy for reducing our environmental footprint. If ten households can share one power drill, lawn mower, or pickup truck, fewer materials must be mined, processed, packaged, and transported.
In his book Materials Matter, Ken Geiser writes about “dematerialization,” or meeting our needs with less stuff. Along with wonky ideas like “decreasing the mass of materials in products,” Geiser lists a more familiar strategy to use less stuff: sharing. “When the use pattern of a product involves long periods of disuse or the acquisition costs are high,” Geiser writes, “products may be shared among multiple users.”
Those are the reasons I love sharing: It’s nice, it’s economical, it builds community, it promotes equity, and it conserves resources. As we evaluate the sharing economy, let’s keep those qualities in mind. Does a new platform allow people to share resources, reducing their use of stuff? Great. Does it allow businesses to avoid regulations that protect consumers or skip paying taxes? Not so great. Is there a way to promote innovative sharing models that benefit users, workers, communities, and the environment? Great, let’s talk about it.
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The key question is who benefits from the exchange. As Janelle Orsi, an attorney who runs the Sustainable Economies Law Center, and author of The Sharing Solution, says: “What we should all be heading toward as a society is building tools and platforms that we as a community … benefit from.”
Just because something is labeled “sharing” doesn’t mean it gets a free pass. If it’s a service that provides some of the environmental and social benefits of real sharing, then let’s encourage it. If it doesn’t, it may not be business as usual, but we should still regard it with a buyer-beware mentality. Sharing economy entrepreneurs who shrug off the concerns of the workers displaced by their platforms or who do their best to avoid taxes are forgetting the first lesson of sharing: Be nice.