Is the Sharing Economy Innately Sustainable?



sharing_economy_sustainable_b67d73ac23_GuerrillaFutures_JasonTester Eco-friendly cars, peer-to-peer mortgages and loans that help the environment, collaborative consumption programs that inspire cleaner technology: The sharing economy is obviously inspired by a global concern for the environment.

Or is it?

There’s no doubt that sharing promotes collaborative exchange and that husbanding our natural resources is good for the environment, but will this trend of “what’s mine is yours” continue to promote sustainability?

Inspiring a sustainable Sharing Economy

The answer to that question, say researchers, is as old as human history itself. What motivates our concern for the environment is personal need and survival.

Assistant Professor Cait Poynor Lamberton at the University of Pittsburgh and her team examined the motivators for 369 licensed drivers who used car sharing as a form of transportation. The participants were asked to rate the importance of various factors in choosing a car-sharing program. The fear of “scarcity” – defined as an apprehension that a given service or item wouldn’t be available – came out on top as the key motivator to using a sharing program, not the environment.

“It’s important to convince people that it is a safe decision to switch to sharing,” Lamberton said in an interview with the university’s business e-zine, PittBusiness. Lamberton pointed out that this data would help sharing-oriented businesses figure out how best to reach their customers.

But does that mean that concern for the environment will eventually go by the wayside? An ecologically sound environment is, after all, critical to our personal needs and survival. And programs that are responsive to those demands are essential in today’s urban environment. Ergo, car sharing programs that can shuttle people short distances in bad weather, communal dinner programs that use fewer local resources, home rental listings that turn empty bedrooms into short-term (and inexpensive) lodging, etc.

The Shared Economy to the rescue

Nowhere has there been a better example of the value of a local sharing community than in New York, as victims of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction last November found out. Car-sharing helped get stranded people back on the road and back to work; online accommodation-sharing services connected victims with temporary housing; coworking spaces became essential backups for those whose offices were damaged during the storm.

But how environmentally sustainable really are co-sharing programs and services? Sure, they may be helpful during hurricanes or earthquakes, but do they really help lessen our carbon footprint on the environment?

Does renting a private room in a home for a few nights instead of in a hotel automatically save wear and tear on the environment? It fills a bed that would otherwise be temporarily empty, but, of course, it may diminish other services that would be provided in a hotel: an extra washing of linens, the supply of soaps and other complementary items during the stay, and electricity usage and other services needed for cleaning the room after the stay.

Supporting sustainability through selective choices

Similarly, it’s not the use of a car-sharing service that reduces smog on urban highways, but how that service is used.

Katie Stafford, corporate communications manager for Car2Go, stated that research has found that car-sharing services are most successful at reducing carbon footprint when they are used for short essential hops, such as from the light rail station to the place of employment. This “first- and last-mile” service concept allows drivers to share resources and reduce the number of cars actually used on the road.

“While people can use a car to go out for days at a time, our service is really meant for short trips … and sharing a network of cars with their neighbors,” Stafford said.

sharing_economy_free_89071e2484_GuerillaFutures_JasonTesterInterestingly, the collaborative consumption idea also works best when there is a large variety of shared services.

“You can’t just have one thing shared,” said Stafford. “There have to be many different things shared for the sharing economy to really work.”

That means also having a good selection of public infrastructure such as light rail, bus, train or other supplemental services to interlink with its services. Car-sharing programs like Car2Go, ZipCar and peer-to-peer car rental services work so well in Seattle, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. Canada because residents are able to access a variety of public services and fill in the short jaunts with car sharing.

Smart choices or smart regulation?

Finally, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization SPUR points out that municipal and state laws need to stay abreast of the increasing demand for shared services in order for their demand to grow. Examples include modifying tax laws to encourage shared use programs and adjusting parking regulations to allow for car drop offs and pick ups on downtown streets.

But regulations may also be needed to guarantee that shared services are environmentally sustainable, not just economical. As Lamberton’s study points out, users may be motivated by need and comfort, but the true beneficiary of a shared economy is still Mother Nature.

[Images courtesy of Guerrilla Futures/Jason Tester]

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

4 responses

  1. Maybe what we are doing is not so much sharing as making products more fungible, or divisible into smaller chunks for consumption. So the issue is a person only needs a car for so long, not that he wants to be an “eco aware commons using” type of guy. He simply wants to reduce overhead and liability to match need.

    With AirBB for example, I actually find that I get a better deal at some of the new “Express” flavor hotels like Cambia suites. These new hotels, many in the suburbs, offer ample free parking, superior media services like free wifi, a printer, and HDMI ports so I can play Netflix on the TV, a Wolfgang Puck cafeteria, gym, … basically the things I would want from a nicely done apartment complex, and at rates less than $100..avoiding the high overheads of staying in an urban core.

  2. It’s true that the motivation to share comes from a place of self-interest and is primarily based on the need to save or make money, but the beneficiary is the environment. Building an economy around the sharing of our finite resources and the sharing of our human resources and potential is ultimately THE only sustainable way forward. The fact that the ‘environment’ isn’t the number one motivator is due to the fact that we live in a society where sharing culture isn’t dominant, but this is shifting. The Sharing Economy is the future sustainable economy but it will take a lot of work to get there. In the short term we need to appeal to a mainstream population whose hearts are often dominated by their pockets. It’s how we’ll get there. Once people get involved in the Sharing Economy, the motivators change and people share for social and environmental reasons.

  3. Great points guys!

    John, is it possible that that “chunking” process can lead to a better consciousness and intent about protecting the environment? I know that I become more eco-aware by doing things that educate me about the environment. Can we start with a personal goal, and then gain motivation to help the environment by learning how that action helps the ecology?

    Benita, I agree. The Sharing Economy seems to be a viable route to helping the economy, even if we start that path as a result of personal motivations or fulfillment.

    Thanks for the great comments!

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