Today is Global Sharing Day, and as this is a subject I’ve been increasingly getting into over the last year or so, with a HuffPo article and a trip to the 3 day OuiShareFest in Paris at the beginning of May, it seems appropriate to share some reflections. Those reflections are still pretty ill-formed and conflicted, but as I found in Paris, that’s the way the whole movement feels at the moment.

Like the vast majority of those gathered, I agree on the basics. That means two things. First, we all celebrate the pace of growth of this tentatively defined economy. Flagship sharing platform Airbnb is or will very soon be the world’s largest hotelier: it has on its books 650,000 rooms in 192 countries, and has got there in 4 years. Hilton took 93 years to get to 610,000 rooms in 88 countries. The most interesting of the big companies are getting on board too – in the UK, M&S’s ‘shwopping’ partnership with Oxfam and B&Q’s ‘streetclub’ are mainstream examples. With the state of the world as it is, any disruption that can hit scale is cause for hope.

Second, we all know which side they are on when it comes to the high profile challenge, the one that gets reported on bbc.co.uk and in the Economist, that of taxation and licensing. This is a teething problem: future-facing cities like Amsterdam have already seen they will just need to find a way; the old guard, Brussels among them, will either catch up soon or it’ll be their loss anyway.

So far so good. In fact, really good, because this idea of economics seems intuitively to solve almost everything. If we can share things, we shouldn’t need as much material stuff, which must be good for the environment. Even more importantly from my perspective, the act of sharing should engender a different relationship between people, one which erodes the idea of the individual as the Consumer – it simply doesn’t make sense to describe people as Consumers in a society where the act is not consumption but sharing. And if we can move beyond the idea of the Consumer, to become Peers (the term used by the US movement growing up around this work) if not Citizens, we could be well on the way to a more positive world.

But here comes the conflicted moment. Because intuitive ‘shoulds’ do not necessarily become fulfilled. And there are some worrying signs that they will not be.

Firstly, the question of material impacts. The net impact of the sharing economy has not until now been assessed in detail, but a team from Sciences Po were present at OuiShare with some of their early findings – which unfortunately run counter to intuition. Where the sharing economy has taken most hold, it seems, material flows and fossil fuel consumption are not necessarily lower. The phenomenon of car sharing, one of the sharing economy’s great successes (check out blablacar and drivy.com for more), explains this. Essentially, car sharing is more environmentally efficient than individual usage, but still considerably more environmentally damaging than for example train or bus. But the lower cost of car sharing, while retaining higher status than public transport, appears to be driving more people off public transport. This effect is compounded by the fact that many people – rather embarrassingly including the OuiShareFest hosts – are promoting the message that car sharing is environmentally better than public transport. This maps across to initiatives like Le Tote, the fast fashion rental brand promoted by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation at OuiShareFest. While intuitively this brand is better than buying clothes and throwing them away, there has been no full systemic impact assessment and in practice it is perfectly possible this should simply drive yet further consumption. The new season still has to be made and the old still becomes out of date; it is even possible that more can be bought if you can clear your stocks in this way.

Secondly, the question of the role of the individual. Are we all becoming Sharers, Peers, and Co-creators, and leaving behind the Consumer for good? Maybe. But I cannot help feeling deeply suspicious of people like the Airbnb representative at OuiShareFest. In the same breath, he claimed that ownership was simply less important to the new generation – that we no longer need to own when we can share – and then told us how he had just become the proud owner of his own home for the first time.

This points to two concerns for me. Firstly, are we really heralding a society of sharing, or is it a society where actually sharing becomes commercialised and in effect consumption, where even actions that might used to have been friendly favours have a price upon them? And one that leaves all the old inequalities in place to boot? After all, only those who have room to spare can share that room on Airbnb, and only those who have a car can offer a ride on blablacar. With these services, they can monetise that incredibly easily. How long on this path before it becomes normal to charge a friend to stay in your house, turning a friendly favour to a commercial transaction? After all, you are sacrificing potential revenue by allowing them to stay… Is that really moving us beyond the Consumer? Or is it potentially Consumerising even friendship?

And then consider the platform owners themselves. Airbnb, like Facebook and Twitter, is a brand that is nothing without the people who use it. But all three of these brands own all the value, and the users own none. The case of the Huffington Post, where Arianna Huffington persuaded hundreds of people to contribute content for free and then sold to AOL for hundreds of millions of dollars without a great deal of “sharing”, is an instructive case. This is one of the tensions that was bubbling away at OuiShareFest – purists like Belgian polymath Michel Bauwens (whose 2013 scenarios presentation I would highly recommend) are very clear that this approach is not what we should be pursuing, but merely what he calls Netarchical Capitalism: a form redder in tooth and claw than any that have gone before, promoting the purveyors of the networks to the status of a new elite – and one less restrained because it will not recognise its own nature. Trebor Schulz, an academic at the New School in New York, is deeply concerned that this is exactly what is happening: according to one study he led, the average wage earned by a participant in the sharing economy is in the region of US$2-3 per hour, with no realistic avenue to unionisation to make that rise.

So if these are the tensions, what will the future hold?

The positive view is that all these too may be teething problems. The intuitive potentials could still become the reality. Rachel Botsmann, author of What’s Mine Is Yours and a key proponent of the movement, makes the defence that it is still very early days, and the intentions are good. But that begs merely the question: what needs to be done to make sure the outcomes are positive?

The more I reflect on it, the more I feel (perhaps unsurprisingly!) that the idea of the individual must be the intervention point. The sharing economy, in other words, is another demand for the shift from Consumer to Citizen, rather than a phenomenon that will automatically fulfil it. If we approach the age of the sharing economy as Consumers, it is perfectly possible, as above, that we will perpetuate and perhaps even worsen the problems we currently have.

If, however, we can enter this world as Citizens, seeking to make the best of its potential for society and not just individually extract as much value as each of us can in the immediate term, there is a huge opportunity to reshape society. Could we for example see cooperatives, owned by sharers and users alike, not by a platform elite, come into the space – competing with the Airbnbs of this world?

It could happen. As the New Citizenship Project, we hope it does, and will do everything we can to make it.

3 thoughts on “Will the Sharing Economy fulfil its positive potential?

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