Earlier this year, hundreds of people gathered in a downtown San Francisco venue to celebrate--and debate--the "sharing economy." The term covers a sprawling range of digital platforms and offline activities, from financially successful companies like Airbnb, a peer-to-peer lodging service, to smaller initiatives such as repair collectives and tool libraries. Many organizations have been eager to position themselves under the "big tent" of the sharing economy because of the positive symbolic meaning of sharing, the magnetism of innovative digital technologies, and the rapidly growing volume of sharing activity.
While boosterism has been the rule in this sector, a strong contingent at the conference questioned whether the popular claim that the sharing economy is fairer, lower-carbon, and more transparent, participatory, and socially-connected is anything more than rhetoric for the large, monied players. Janelle Orsi, an activist lawyer, opened with a provocative challenge: "How are we going to harness the sharing economy to spread the wealth?" The Airbnbs of the world and their venture capitalist backers are siphoning off too much value, she and others argued. Discussions of labor exploitation, race to the bottom dynamics, perverse eco-impacts, unequal access for low-income and minority communities, and the status of regulation and taxation engaged attendees throughout the next two days.
Over the last year, these and related debates have been raging within and outside the sharing community. Will the sector evolve in line with its stated progressive, green, and utopian goals, or will it devolve into business as usual? This moment is reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, when many believed that digital connection would become a force for empowerment. The tendency of platforms to scale and dominate (think Google, Facebook, and Amazon) offers a cautionary tale. So, too, does the history of Zipcar. Once the face of the sharing economy, it is now a sub-brand of Avis. Will other sharing platforms follow similar trajectories as they grow? Or will the sharing economy be the disruptive, world-changing innovation its proponents expect? And if it is, will it change the world for the better? It is too early for definitive answers to these questions, but important to ask them. (1)
While many of the most visible platforms in the sharing economy began in the United States, sharing has become a global phenomenon, both because of the expansion of platforms to other countries, and because the idea of sharing has caught on around the world. Platforms are proliferating throughout Europe, where cities are becoming centers of "sharing" practices. Paris, for example, has become the annual home of the "OuiShare" fest. The Arab world has a raft of new sharing innovations, Colombia has become a sharing hub in Latin America, and Seoul is a center of sharing. Last year, the government of Ecuador launched Buen Conocer, an initiative to radically reimagine the nation according to principles of sharing--open networks, open production, and an economy of the commons. While the politics of these sharing efforts differ across the globe, what is common is the desire among participants to create fairer, more sustainable, and more socially connected societies.
I became interested in the sharing economy in 2008 while I was writing a book about a transition to a small-scale, ecologically sustainable economy. (2) At that time, I predicted a decline in full-time employment, as well as the need to reduce working hours as a method of controlling carbon emissions. I proposed a new household model in which people would have diverse sources of income, and would access goods and services through varied low-cost channels. With enough of a safety net and sufficient public goods, such a world could yield greater freedom, autonomy, and quality of life. If it were able to provide decent earnings and reasonably low prices, the sharing economy could be an important component of that new model. Today, however, with the corporatization of a number of the leading players, the role of the sharing economy in a just and sustainable transition is an open question.
It is timely to step back and take stock of what has happened and how the arguments both for and against the sharing economy stack up. Because my research has focused on the United States, this essay will do so as well, returning to the global dimensions of sharing in the conclusion. I begin with a brief review of what the sharing economy is, where it came from, and why people are participating in it. I will then consider the sharing economy's impacts on ecological well-being and social connection. I conclude with the question of whether these new technologies and practices can lead to new forms of organizing that may be part of a citizens' movement for a fairer and more sustainable economy.
What is the Sharing Economy?
Coming up with a solid definition of the sharing economy that reflects common usage is nearly impossible. There is great diversity among activities as well as baffling boundaries drawn by participants. TaskRabbit, an "errands" site, is often included, but Mechanical Turk (Amazon's online labor market) is not. Airbnb is practically synonymous with the sharing economy, but traditional bed and breakfasts are left out. Lyft, a ride service company, claims to be in, but Uber, another ride service company, does not. Shouldn't public libraries and parks count? When I posed these questions to a few sharing innovators, they were pragmatic, rather than analytical: self-definition by the platforms and the press defines who is in and who is out.
Sharing economy activities fall into four broad categories: recirculation of goods, increased utilization of durable assets, exchange of services, and sharing of productive assets. The origins of the first date to 1995 with the founding of eBay and Craigslist, two marketplaces for recirculation of goods that are now firmly part of the mainstream consumer experience. These sites were propelled by nearly two decades of heavy acquisition of cheap imports that led to a proliferation of unwanted items. (3) In addition, sophisticated software reduced the traditionally high transaction costs of secondary markets, and at eBay, reputational information on sellers was crowdsourced from buyers, thereby reducing the risks of transacting with strangers. By 2010, many similar sites had launched, including ThredUp and Threadflip for apparel, free exchange sites like Freecycle and Yerdle, and barter sites such as Swapstyle.com. Online exchange now includes "thick," or dense, markets in apparel, books, and toys, as well as thinner markets for sporting equipment, furniture, and home goods.
The second type of platform facilitates using durable goods and other assets more intensively. In wealthy nations, households purchase products or hold property that is not used to capacity (e.g., spare rooms and lawn mowers). Here, the innovator was Zipcar, a company that placed vehicles in convenient urban locations and offered hourly rentals. After the 2009 recession, renting assets became more economically attractive, and similar initiatives proliferated. In transportation, these include car rental sites (Relay Rides), ride sharing (Zimride), ride services (Uber, UberX, Lyft), and bicycle sharing (Boston's Hubway or Chicago's Divvy Bikes). In the lodging sector, the innovator was Couchsurfing, which began pairing travelers with people who offered rooms or couches without payment back in 1999. Couchsurfing led to Airbnb, which has reported more than 10 million stays. (4)
There has also been a revival of non-monetized initiatives such as tool libraries, which arose decades ago in low-income communities. These efforts are typically neighborhood-based in order to enhance trust and minimize transportation costs for bulky items. New digital platforms include the sharing of durable goods as a component of neighborhood building (e.g., Share Some Sugar, Neighborgoods). These innovations can provide people with low-cost access to goods and space, and some offer opportunities to earn money, often to supplement regular income streams.
The third practice is service exchange. Its origins lie in time banking, which, in the United States, began in the 1980s to provide opportunities for the unemployed. (5) Time banks are community-based, non-profit multilateral barter sites in which services are traded on the basis of time spent, according to the principle that every member's time is valued equally. In contrast...