Sustainability and the Sharing Economy
“The sharing economy is not motivated by environmental benefits”. This is the result of a recent survey by professors from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of South Carolina. According to their findings, the most important reasons why people share are financial constraints and convenience. Therefore the study suggests that companies looking to win over new customers should emphasize monetary benefits instead of sustainability in their marketing. This statement is yet another sign that the role of sustainability is currently not being sufficiently acknowledged in the collaborative consumption discussion. But I think it should. Here’s why:
Sustainable development, as defined by the United Nations, is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Being on the agenda of many governments, NGOs and corporations, sustainability is a larger and more mainstream concept than collaborative consumption. Apart from the fact that “going green” has gained broad acceptance among consumers, most governments and companies put a large amount of resources towards meeting specific sustainability goals such as CO2 reduction. Thus in comparison to the attention sustainability has received in the last decade, the sharing economy is still a small phenomenon.
As sharing economy advocate Rachel Botsman points out in her book “What’s mine is yours”, collaborative consumption has the potential to help achieve sustainability goals by reducing waste and pollution as well as extending the life-cycles of products. Transactions between individuals that were inconvenient in the pre-internet age are becoming worthwhile again thanks to the coordination through modern technology. For instance, instead of throwing away your clutter or laboriously trying to resell or re-gift used objects offline, online platforms make it easy to distribute goods to where they are most needed. In other words, acting sustainably has become a lot simpler.
But how large is the environmental impact of the sharing economy really? Although it is still too early to assess the long term benefits of the sharing economy, there have been attempts to measure the positive impact of individual applications such as carsharing. It is estimated, for instance, that every shared car replaces nine to 13 owned ones. As 20% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions are produced by personal vehicles, car and ridesharing platforms could significantly contribute to CO2 reduction.
Most consumers may merely see these benefits as a ‘nice side-effect’. However since the sharing economy could significantly contribute to a sustainable future, it is imaginable that global players involved in the sustainability debate will find exactly this aspect most interesting. Therefore in contrast to the above findings that collaborative marketplaces should not advertise with environmental benefits, I believe that the sharing economy can profit from associating with sustainability. This may give it the attention it needs to reach the next level.
Guest Blogger: Francesca Pick