Is Sharing Good for the Environment? It Depends.

With the rise of the sharing economy, people are sharing cars, houses, sports equipment, clothing, toys, meals, surfboards and much more. There's an intuition among sharers that sharing is not only good for the pocketbook, it’s good for the planet. The thinking goes that sharing helps us reduce consumption and keep usable goods out of landfills.

A recent report, The Sharing Economy: Make It Sustainable, by Damien Demailly at the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), and journalist Anne-Sophie Novel, goes beyond this intuition and answers the question, Is the sharing economy a tool for environmental transformation?

To find out, researchers conducted interviews, reviewed existing research, and hosted a workshop with 40 people from different parts of the sharing economy including big companies, startups, and the governmental. The goal was to analyze the environmental potential of the sharing economy, and the conditions for the realization of this potential.

What they found, not surprisingly, is that the economic and environmental potential is substantial. If sharing models could be operated under the most favourable conditions, savings of up to 7 percent of the household budget and 20 percent of waste could be achieved.

As Demailly and Novel report, “Clothing, vehicles, furniture, telephones, televisions, toys, sporting goods, home improvement and gardening tools are all examples of the shareable goods that represent about a quarter of household expenditure and a third of household waste, not to mention the energy used to produce them.”

They point out, however, that while the sharing economy may offer the promise of environmental sustainability, the realization of this potential depends on at least three conditions:

  1. The quality of shared goods: Shared goods must be of good quality and have a long lifespan. If a shared good wears out twice as fast due to more intense usage, it cannot be considered as a solution for reducing the demand on resources.

  2. Responsible transport: The sharing of goods involves transporting them to make these goods available to users. While some peer-to-peer models are built around geographical proximity...others may be based on very long transport chains and their unsustainable impacts (energy consumption, congestion, etc).

  3. Consumption modes associated with sharing: Sharing may indeed lead to an increased consumption of that good, a form of “rebound effect.” In the case of eBay for example, the most-traded goods are clothes. Does eBay enable consumers to buy fewer new clothes? This is doubtful when we see that the platform qualifies its users as “fashionistas” who want to increase their wardrobes. Conversely, studies show that carsharing could guide users towards the adoption of a more sustainable mobility “package” by encouraging people to travel less by private car in favour of public transport.

The point made here is that sharing models can be used for materialistic hyperconsumption or for a more frugal consumption, depending on conditions around sharing. It can’t be said that the sharing economy is sustainable by nature; it’s not as cut and dry than that.

Demailly and Novel explain:

“It is important to note...that the current environmental performance of these practices, which will a priori continue to develop, is less important than the conditions for improving their sustainability. Their contribution to the protection of the environment is related to several conditions that act as drivers to make the sharing economy as sustainable as possible.”

The question then becomes, Who can or should trigger these drivers? According to the report, the answer is, everyone involved in the sharing economy: public authorities by building fiscal and regulatory framework that is favorable to sustainable models; users by adjusting their behaviors in the sharing economy to prioritize environmental sustainability; and promoters and entrepreneurs working in the sharing economy by “taking the the lead on the sustainability dimension” and improving their environmental performance.

For a widespread, cross-sector commitment to making the sharing economy environmentally sustainable, Demailly and Novel stress that it is necessary not to use sustainability only as an argument for the sharing economy, but to make sustainability a goal for their activity. As they so succinctly put it, “Sharing is not sustainable by nature: MAKE it sustainable.”

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