The sharing economy: Sharing and sustainability
Phuah Eng Chye (23 December 2017)
There is another contentious claim about the sharing economy; namely that sharing has a positive impact on sustainability. Juliet Schor observes “many sites advertise themselves as green and present sharing as a way to reduce carbon footprints. It is a truism among sharers that sharing is less resource intensive than the dominant ways of accessing goods and services (e.g., hotels, taxis, shopping malls) because of the assumed reduction in demand for new goods or facilities.”
But she notes that “despite the widespread belief that the sector helps to reduce carbon emissions, there are almost no comprehensive studies of its impact.” In this regard, “the ordinary assumptions about ecological impacts are generally about the first, visible shifts made by a consumer – purchasing used products rather than new ones, or staying in a private home rather than a hotel. To assess overall ecological impacts, however, we have to consider ripple effects. What does the seller or the host do with the money earned? She may use the money to buy high-impact products. Does the appearance of a market for used goods lead people to buy more new things that they intend to sell later? If travel becomes less expensive, do people do more of it? All of these effects raise ecological and carbon footprints.”
Juliet Schor points out “there is also the question of impacts at the level of the economy as a whole. The platforms are creating new markets that expand the volume of commerce and boost purchasing power. The larger, for-profit companies are claiming to generate substantial business and income for their providers. If so, they are likely creating economic activity that would not have existed otherwise – more travel, more private automobile rides – and not just shifting purchasing from one type of provider to another…Airbnb users are taking more trips now and that the availability of cheap ride services is diverting some people from public transportation. That means the platforms result in higher carbon emissions, because their services use energy. The companies can’t have it both ways – creating new economic activity and reducing carbon emissions – because the two are closely linked.”
Therein lies the issue. Ridesharing can lure passengers from public transit, increase the number of cars on the road and add to traffic congestion. This will increase energy use and emissions. Ridesharing will not reduce pollution from cars if it doesn’t reduce traffic congestion or car sales or if it ends up replacing more energy-efficient modes of public transit. The bottom line is that there is a trade-off between expanding physical output and sustainability. Sharing cannot achieve sustainability in isolation from other policy initiatives. The ability of sharing platforms to promote sustainability is negated if they run up against other policies that are intent on boosting output; e.g. fiscal stimulus with incentives to boost car sales.
Overall, there is potential for sharing to become a powerful tool towards achieving sustainability. In this regard, Juliet Schor notes “the impetus to share in transportation, housing, foods, and goods is more integrally tied to city-level goals of carbon emission reduction, informational transparency and genuine democracy. By embedding sharing practices within those larger municipal level movements, the likelihood that the sharing movement can achieve its stated goals is greater.”
The sharing economy thus opens up many new opportunities to influence social norms, crowdsource knowledge and escalate social cooperation and action to combat environmental harm. The sharing of information and metrics; and the mobilisation and organisation of support and finance can help direct resources with greater precision and to better effect.
Juliet Schor (October 2014) “Debating the sharing economy”. Great Transition Initiative. http://www.greattransition.org/publication/debating-the-sharing-economy.
Phuah Eng Chye (28 October 2017) “The sharing economy: Ridesharing and public transportation”. Economicsofinformationsociety.com. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/the-sharing-economy-ridesharing-and-public-transportation/
information society, Phuah Eng Chye, sharing economy, sustainability, Juliet Schor, Steven Hill
 Phuah Eng Chye “The sharing economy: Ridesharing and public transportation”.