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.
"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.