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Global justice, sustainability and the sharing economy

If the sharing economy movement is to play a role in shifting society away from the dominant economic paradigm, it will have to get political. And this means guarding against the co-optation of sharing by the corporate sector, while joining forces with a much larger body of activists that have long been calling - either explicitly or implicitly - for more transformative and fundamental forms of economic sharing across the world.


With public interest in the sharing economy on the rise, a polarisation of views on its potential benefits and drawbacks is fast becoming apparent. Much of the mainstream media continues to focus on the ability of the sharing economy to generate wealth and create new billionaires, while some social entrepreneurs and progressives claim that interpersonal sharing is the solution to the world’s most intractable problems. At the same time, a growing number of analysts are concerned that the sharing economy could enable businesses to evade regulations and even break the law. These increasingly conflicting views reflect the diverse interests of the many individuals, organisations and businesses engaged in what is essentially an emerging movement for sharing that has yet to clarify its purpose.

To add a further layer of confusion to the debate, there is little agreement on what the sharing economy actually is. For example, Rachel Botsman - a leading proponent of the ‘what’s mine is yours’ philosophy - argues that the sharing economy forms part of a much wider collaborative economy that leverages technology and trust to facilitate a more efficient distribution of goods and services. A broader definition has been put forward by The People Who Share, who regard the sharing economy as an “alternative socio-economic system which embeds sharing and collaboration at its heart – across all aspects of social and economic life”. Friends of the Earth have also significantly expanded the discourse on sharing to include the political sphere, albeit focussing on city-wide sharing as a means for improving environmental sustainability and equity among citizens.

All of these existing definitions still pay insufficient attention to national and global forms of economic sharing, particularly those facilitated by democratically elected governments. Instead, the focus generally remains limited to individual (peer-to-peer) and local sharing initiatives. Apart from those advocating for localised forms of sharing to be replicated in cities across the world, rarely is the sharing economy discussed in terms of systems of sharing and redistribution that operate on a nationwide or global scale, or in relation to calls for governments to institute the more transformative forms of economic sharing that are possible today.

This is not to deny the very real potential of the sharing economy to help strengthen communities, reduce the rate at which resources are consumed, and create financial returns at very low marginal cost. However, if our reason for supporting different modes of sharing is a desire to create a more equitable and sustainable economic system, we need to significantly broaden our understanding and interpretation of what constitutes a sharing economy. There is no question that it makes sound economic and environmental sense for businesses and individuals to reduce their carbon footprints and share scarce resources. But government policy (enacted either nationally or through international agreements) ultimately determines how effectively nations and the international community can address the underlying causes of inequality, climate change and resource wars – some of the most pressing challenges that face humanity in the 21st century.

Bearing in mind the urgent need to implement sharing on a systemic and global basis, a fresh evaluation of the sharing economy from the perspective of social justice and environmental sustainability is presented below. The five general positions that follow do not present a comprehensive critique by any standards, but they are a starting point for broadening the sharing economy discourse and making it more relevant to the bigger picture issues that concern many progressives today. In particular, this perspective questions the role of commerce in so-called sharing-related business activities. It also proposes that we should include longstanding national and global forms of sharing in our definition of what constitutes a sharing economy, especially if we are working towards the creation of a more equal, just and sustainable world.

Interpersonal forms of sharing are not enough to deliver social justice or environmental sustainability

There is good reason to doubt whether the sharing economy (at least as it is generally understood today in terms of peer-to-peer activities) can ever have a significant impact on pressing global crises. For example, many people involved in the sharing economy aim to reduce their personal consumption to sustainable levels. While this is an important practice, the sheer scale of the ecological crisis suggests that simply sharing surplus or under-utilised personal goods is not a sufficient response to a global problem that requires systemic change at all levels to resolve. As often repeated, humanity as a whole is consuming natural resources 50% faster than the planet can replenish them. Not only is this massive overshoot in global consumption levels set to worsen as the world’s consumer class expands, it is also further complicated by huge imbalances. Around 20% of the world’s population are responsible for 80% of all resource consumption, while the remaining 80% are surviving on a ‘low consumption pathway’ and 20% are in ‘basic needs deficit.’

Clearly the global sustainability crisis cannot be addressed effectively until the structural factors that are responsible for creating these inequalities are fully addressed, and this has huge implications for transforming government policies and economic systems both nationally and globally. A huge array of reforms are needed to reconfigure the way nations extract, produce, distribute and consume resources across the world. For instance, this would include rethinking our notions of progress and prosperity, ending the dominance of consumption-led economic growth over government policy, and reversing the relentless push towards trade liberalisation. Much also needs to be done to dismantle the culture of consumerism, reconceptualise financial measures like GDP, and shift investment towards building and sustaining a low-carbon infrastructure, as endlessly debated by civil society.

In fact, the entire ecological conundrum is increasingly being framed in terms of sharing by progressive analysts – either through an ‘equity and fair shares’ lens or from the perspective of sharing the planet’s resources more sustainably to secure basic human rights for all. Although these critical discourses on sharing are becoming ever more urgent and popular among civil society thinkers, sharing economy advocates have generally neglected these systemic issues and failed to connect with environmentalists and anti-poverty campaigners who are often calling for vital forms of global economic sharing.

The need for public sector-driven solutions is also evident in relation to tackling poverty and inequality which, in simple terms, requires governments to ensure universal access to essential goods and services. But instead of promoting or facilitating these fundamental aspects of economic sharing, most sharing economy supporters tend to focus on the collaborative (and often for-profit) sharing of household items, cars or spare rooms - not the resources that people most desperately need to be shared today such as nutritious food, healthcare and essential public services. Similarly, while sharing in terms of charitable giving and voluntary assistance within communities can help redistribute wealth and alleviate some instances of human deprivation, it cannot address the structural causes of poverty and inequality that have their basis in public policy.

If advocates of the sharing economy are really motivated to tackle complex social and ecological issues, they should also devote time and energy to promoting forms of sharing that are far more effective at addressing these problems, such as universal social protection or contraction and convergence approaches to addressing climate change. This means moving beyond the solely personal, community and city-oriented view of sharing, and embracing a wider understanding of sharing that includes the role of governments in advancing effective social policy and environmental regulations. Most of all, it is at the national and global level that the sharing economy can be revolutionary and transformative – if its supporters are willing to engage in the gritty politics of reforming government policy to establish truly effective and ‘sharing’ societies.

A much broader definition of the sharing economy is needed

Existing definitions of the sharing economy tend to focus on personal, local and business approaches to sharing, even when those involved in the sharing movement profess to care deeply about climate change and other global issues. But these definitions present a very limited and superficial understanding of what the sharing economy is, which disconnects the sharing economy movement from serious attempts to address social injustice or environmental degradation. For instance, national systems of sharing are arguably the most established, important and fundamental examples of sharing economies that exist in the modern world, as alluded to above. Through systems of progressive taxation and the provision of essential public services and social protection for all, the vast majority of people in most developed countries are involved in and benefit from these broad-based sharing systems. Why aren’t these crucial examples of sharing part of the discourse and evolving definition of the sharing economy?

Perhaps a majority of those involved in the sharing economy come from an entrepreneurial or technology background, and therefore prefer to focus on social enterprise solutions or software-driven and online peer-to-peer platforms. Others might be deeply sceptical about state intervention and regulation – a view that is particularly prominent in the United States. Or perhaps, as various commentators are increasingly suggesting, the sharing economy is more concerned with profit and the private sector than it is with the ethic of sharing per se. It stands to reason that if the sharing economy movement had a more robust focus on the welfare of people and the planet, one would expect more vocal opposition to austerity measures or greater support for environmental campaigns by organisations like Greenpeace – issues that are rarely if ever mentioned on the pages of the most prominent sharing economy websites. In this sense, the millions of people across the US and Europe who are mobilising against government austerity policies could be considered the real champions of the sharing economy.

In some cases, focussing on new sharing economy platforms, technologies and initiatives could even undermine more effective and established systems of national sharing. For example, while car sharing schemes are clearly good for the environment, a universally accessible public transport system is undeniably better. Indeed public transport can be regarded as a greener citywide or nationwide sharing platform - but few people promoting the sharing economy are advocating to improve such services. The intense focus that the sharing economy places on individuals and the private sector might also explain the recurring issues around sharing-oriented businesses flaunting regulatory and licencing conventions designed to protect society at large.

If a key focus for the sharing economy movement is on resolving global crises, it stands to reason that our understanding and definition of the sharing economy must include critical forms of sharing resources on an international basis that urgently need strengthening and scaling-up. Sharing resources on a finite planet, almost by definition, must take place globally and between governments. Even though international mechanisms for sharing are still in their infancy compared to the national systems of sharing mentioned above, some examples do already exist. These include essential forms of global redistribution such as humanitarian aid; emergent systems of global governance (as ineffectual and biased as they currently are); and frameworks and agreements that facilitate the protection and sharing of the planet’s scarce natural resources. This international aspect of sharing is the most crucial with regards to social and environmental justice, although it still remains the least developed or discussed among proponents of the sharing economy.

Supporters of peer-to-peer sharing could help build a much stronger identity by recognising that their activities form part of these much broader and more fundamental sharing systems that operate at all levels of society. An inclusive working definition that can embrace the diverse national and international forms of sharing was put forward in STWR’s report Financing the global sharing economy, and is worth revisiting:

“The sharing economy is a broad term used in this report that encompasses the many systems of sharing and redistribution that exist locally, nationally and globally - whether facilitated by individuals, states or other institutions. It is concerned with the social, economic, environmental, political and spiritual benefits of sharing both material and non-material resources - everything from time and love to money and natural resources.”

“In comparison, the global sharing economy refers specifically to systems of sharing and redistribution that are international or global in nature - whether facilitated directly by people and governments or by global institutions like the United Nations. It refers to the many methods by which the international community can share their financial, technical, natural and other resources for the common good of all people. The global sharing economy is still in its infancy, but is nonetheless an important expression of the growing sense of solidarity and unity between people and nations.”

The sharing economy movement must resist co-optation by the corporate sector

In a worrying phenomenon sometimes described as ‘sharewashing’, commercial activities that have never before been regarded as sharing are now re-branded under this trendy new meme. For example, most people would agree that renting is not the same as sharing and neither is giving people a lift in your car in exchange for cash. Room sharing and car sharing enterprises might offer excellent and rewarding services in their own right, but they may have little to do with the principle of sharing in relation to human rights and concerns for equity, democracy, justice and sustainability, especially when the main beneficiaries are company shareholders and not customers or employees. It is already well recognised that many so-called sharing enterprises adopt business models and ethics that do not allow wealth, income or decision-making to be shared with their employees or customers to any significant extent.

Above all, we must guard against sharing-oriented initiatives from being co-opted by the corporate sector. Rampant commercialisation is at the heart of the social and environmental problems we face, so those involved in the sharing economy movement should be cautious about supporting large corporations whose wider business models and practices fail to embody the principle of sharing in any real sense. This sort of co-optation is a well-documented phenomenon in relation to social and environmental issues, with the ‘greenwashing’ of oil companies that supposedly pursue an ecological agenda, and the ‘whitewashing’ of unethical corporations through Corporate Social Responsibility programs.

If sharing is not to be co-opted by venture capital and the corporate sector, perhaps there should be a minimum criteria for any company that professes to be part of the sharing economy. At the very least, sharing economy businesses should be set up as not-for-profits or cooperatives, or else they should adopt business models that promote the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. They must also pay their fair share of taxes, as this is a key part of the established and most important system of sharing that we have (yet) created.

Sharing is already a common cause for the global justice movement

Many supporters of sharing economy initiatives think that sharing is fashionable and trendy - a lifestyle choice - and that by sharing they are doing their bit to promote egalitarian or environmentally conscious ethics and values. But if the sharing movement is to play a role in shifting society away from the dominant economic paradigm and help to resolve global crises, it will have to get political. This means recognising that sharing economy advocates are part of a much larger body of people calling for more transformative forms of economic sharing in relation to pressing social and environmental concerns.

Millions of people across the world are already campaigning for economic and political reforms that embody the principle of sharing, although they don’t always use the term ‘sharing’ in their advocacy and activities. The sharing of wealth, power or resources is central to what progressives have long been calling for, and supporting these demands for social justice, peace and ecological sustainability is fundamental to affecting structural change on the scale that is now necessary. This means being more aware of the issues that environmentalists and activists campaign on, and explicitly aligning local sharing activities with their broader justice-based vision of economic and ecological sharing.

For example, as mentioned above, strengthening systems of progressive taxation and public services is essential at the national level – and this means opposing economic austerity measures and supporting nationwide systems of sharing. Campaigners are also calling for new mechanisms for sharing the global commons (including the atmosphere – a key issue in international climate change negotiations) as this is the only way to create a more sustainable and peaceful world. If we support the sharing economy in its broadest sense as outlined here, we need to support these and other sharing-related campaigns in their many and diverse forms.

The sharing economy is best promoted by appealing to intrinsic values

It is not hard to imagine how a process of sharing could theoretically play a key role in addressing multiple global crises, as genuine forms of economic sharing should result in a fairer distribution of resources for all people within planetary limits. However, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that promoting the sharing economy as another way to supplement our income is likely to promote extrinsic values that will undermine efforts to create a more equitable and sustainable world. According to detailed studies, promoting intrinsic values that go beyond concerns about oneself are far more likely to encourage sustainable lifestyles than a focus on extrinsic values, such as personal financial gain. In other words, those who share because they are told it can help them make some spare cash are less likely to engage in other environmentally beneficial activities, compared to those who share out of purely environmental concerns.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with making some extra money or being motivated by extrinsic values. However, if our goal is to help address the world’s interconnected and intractable crises, the evidence suggests that our campaigning activities must remain firmly aligned to intrinsic values. This has huge implications for all those involved in promoting the sharing economy at a time when so much of the public discourse on sharing highlights the growth and success of certain businesses in predominantly monetary terms.

To conclude, there is little doubt that through the time-honoured act of sharing we can strengthen communities, reduce consumption and facilitate the non-monetary distribution of goods and services – and this can potentially help rebalance an economic system that is increasingly dependent on greed and hyper-consumerism for its continued success. But interpersonal sharing is not enough at a time when humanity is facing what can only be described as a global emergency that includes massive poverty and rising levels of inequality, climate change and the wider ecological crisis, as well as ongoing conflicts over the world’s dwindling natural resources.

The process of sharing can only play a transformative role in addressing these crises if we move beyond our egocentric understanding of the sharing economy, and embrace national and global forms of sharing that are facilitated by government bodies in response to urgent social and environmental needs. By being vigilant about how we promote and participate in the sharing economy, we can also guard against the pervasive influence of commerce as it seeks to expand into new markets in a last ditch attempt to preserve the status quo. And by working more closely with the many millions of campaigners and organisations across the world who recognise the transformative potential of economic sharing – whether this is explicitly or implicitly expressed – we can significantly strengthen our chances of establishing an ecologically viable and socially just future for all.

Photo credit: cogdogblog, flickr creative commons

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