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Reflections on the future of the sharing economy

03 March 2015

At a time when inequality is on the rise and nations are failing to reduce global carbon emissions, what does the future hold for the sharing economy movement unless it mobilises to reform government policies that are the root cause of climate change and socio-economic exclusion? 

Evidence suggests that most sharing economy activities attract mainly white middle class users, which raises important questions around how to ensure that ‘excluded communities’ can benefit more directly from sharing economy services. These concerns potentially underpin the very future of the sharing movement: if platforms for collaborative consumption and sharing aren’t facilitating access to resources for those who need them most, perhaps the sharing economy is failing to live up to its fundamental purpose. Such issues were at the centre of discussions at a recent Global Sharing Economy Network event at which I was invited to speak about the global implications of our failure to share in terms of escalating poverty, the global environmental crisis and conflict over natural resources.

My co-presenters included the founders of a number of exemplary sharing-based initiatives that focus squarely on meeting social or environmental needs. As with many similar organisations in this sector, they are largely staffed by volunteers and not driven by the profit imperative, yet they are often very effective at increasing access to food, support networks and other resources for the communities that they target. As if to reiterate the overarching point of the meeting, however, a number of people in the audience (including the principal of an inner city school and others involved in providing various forms of social assistance around London) confessed that they had never heard of the services being presented and were entirely unfamiliar with the concept of the sharing economy. Moreover, they were certain that the disadvantaged groups with which they work were also oblivious to these emerging forms of collaboration and sharing.   

This reality check underlined the extent to which the mainstream media highlight trendy ‘sharing’ corporations that have huge PR and marketing budgets, but tend to ignore the small organisations that are making an immediate impact on people’s lives. Services like Food Cycle, for example, are a lifeline for those who are isolated and living in food poverty, but they are unlikely to be featured in the business press as Airbnb or Uber might. And even if they were, the coverage is unlikely to draw the attention of the excluded communities that were the focus of our discussions.  

Supporting sharing or the sharing economy?

Perhaps the most revealing question raised and discussed was centred on the potential conflict between the timeless and familiar practice of sharing, and the business-oriented sharing paradigm that has emerged over the last five years or so. In other words, should we be promoting the sharing economy or sharing per se? As one lady rightly objected, people in excluded communities naturally share the things they own (including their spare rooms, car spaces and other surplus material goods) as it’s always been part of their way of life. So why do we need to embellish this common human behaviour by giving it a new name, especially if in the process we commercialise the practice of sharing and thereby place it out of reach for certain communities?

I fully agreed; if we are truly concerned about reaching people in excluded communities, surely it is time we look beyond the conceptual limits of the sharing economy and consider what it really means to share in economic terms. As outlined during my presentation, our understanding of excluded communities must also take account of those people across the world who struggle to access basic resources such as food, clean water and healthcare. If proponents of sharing are serious about reaching those living in poverty or making a real impact on environmental issues, we need to embrace a much broader definition of the sharing economy – perhaps along the lines of the one put forward by The People Who Share:

“The Sharing Economy is a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human and physical resources. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organisations.”

Could it be, however, that this is more a definition of a ‘sharing society’ than a sharing economy, since the latter is mainly associated with companies operating within the private sector - even when their business practices do not reflect sharing in the true sense of the word? Any ‘socio-economic ecosystem’ approach to sharing must also explicitly include the role of governments and the public sector, as well as the charity and voluntary sectors, the core economy, the gift economy, the commons etc. Democratic systems of governance may also represent fundamental forms of sharing, at least in terms of how fairly political power is distributed throughout society. And in today’s globalised economy, is it possible to talk about sharing without considering the way in which wealth and resources are distributed across the planet? The fundamental problem is perhaps not our definition of the sharing economy, but the widely-held assumption that it does not pertain to the public sector or systems of sharing and redistribution that operate at the regional, national or global level.

Political advocacy for a sharing society

As one of the final points raised that evening made clear, the role of public policy is pivotal to ensuring greater levels of sharing in society, especially at a time when growing wealth inequality will inevitably result in more social and economic exclusion in the years ahead. Sharing economy activities that are targeted at excluded communities, not unlike the work of traditional charities, clearly have an important role to play in alleviating the consequences of gross inequality. But unless we change the policies that create poverty and inequality, the sharing economy will not have any real impact on the root causes of these growing crises. A similar logic can also be applied to addressing the systemic causes of climate change rather than working towards reducing the carbon footprints of a select group of sharing economy users.

By the end of the evening, it was becoming clear that if we are to take a ‘socio-economic ecosystem’ approach to the sharing economy, we need to recognise that it is sharing per se and not just the sharing economy that we support, which means advocating for the principle of sharing to be embodied in the private, public and third sectors. Given the current trajectory of government policy which is undermining existing systems of sharing and creating more inequality within and between countries, supporting the ethic and practice of sharing therefore means engaging in the political debate around how to create a more just and sustainable economic system – from the top down as well as the bottom up. This suggestion was widely supported at the event, which ended with an expert panel to which various sharing economy proposals were pitched by the audience.

Many international development charities dedicate a proportion of their resources to lobbying activities and advancing comprehensive policy solutions to the problems affecting the communities they represent. Perhaps, as suggested to the panel, proponents of sharing also need to mobilise concretely against policies that are responsible for generating inequality and social exclusion, and actively support systemic forms of economic sharing that can be delivered by local and national government. As STWR set out in a recent report, taking this political step could link sharing economy advocates to a global movement of progressive individuals and campaign organisations that are also advocating for sharing – particularly in relation to some of the world’s most pressing social, environmental and security crises. By engaging in these broader political debates, we come one step closer to creating a comprehensive socio-economic system based on sharing and cooperation rather than rampant commercialisation, consumerism and competition.