The collaborative economy is a business model whereby shared goods and services are distributed in markets to a community of users. It has developed into almost every consumer sector possible and is gaining recognition as a fully-fledged international movement. In response, big companies are starting to invest in order to establish a foothold and avoid obsolescence. The collaborative economy provides a new pathway to sustainability by counteracting over-consumption and minimizing resource use, but environmental discourse is lagging woefully behind public discourse and practice.

FROM OWNERSHIP TO ACCESS


Collaborative consumption is getting a lot of attention of late, though it’s far from being a new concept. Collaborative commerce sites Craigslist and eBay have been around for almost 20 years. Content and information sharing sites like Wikipedia and Napster are nearly 15 years old. But a new generation of successful start-ups like Uber and Airbnb has given the movement credibility.

The collaborative economy exists in multiple forms, depending on whether businesses or individuals provide access to goods, and whether payment is monetary or an exchange of goods or services. But one common theme is the theory that anyone is able to participate and the driving forces behind the development of the collaborative economy – the global economic collapse, advances in smart technology, and increasing urbanization have made sharing services more desirable. Urbanites have less need for ownership, so they would rather pay for temporary access to goods and services. Apparently “to share is to own more”. However, most people participate in the collaborative economy for reasons of convenience and price rather than a desire to lessen their impact on the planet. The success of the collaborative economy lies not in being “green” but its ability to appeal to a broad audience.

IT'S NOT ALL ROSES…

Social critics of the collaborative economy maintain that since 1) internet access is of vital importance for participation in the collaborative economy, 2) it is largely new urbanites participating, and 3) many people turn to the collaborative economy because they are struggling to find sufficient, full-time work, the collaborative economy serves to reinforce existing patterns of privilege and consumption rather than growing the market.

Economic and political critics of the collaborative economy point out that it poses problems for regulatory frameworks that are not always well-suited to these new business models. Collaborative consumption enterprises have run afoul of tax systems as well as zoning, health and safety regulations in multiple cities; the most notorious case being when Airbnb was ruled illegal in New York City in 2013 because it violates New York’s illegal hotel law which bans New Yorkers from renting apartments for less than 29 days.


ADAPT OR DIE

Despite its flaws, it appears that the collaborative economy is here to stay, and companies are starting to make the switch. In the beginning, established big players – primarily in the music, film and publishing industries – attempted to stave off the disruptive new economy. But their “war on sharing” proved largely unsuccessful. Industries which continue to fight the trend are losing as they fail to embrace new technological developments, new business models, and new consumption habits.

If they can’t fight it, what other strategies do companies have? Flight – diversifying out of their current industry – is one option. Smarter strategies include adaptive practices in order to participate in the new economy. Examples of this include efforts by automobile companies to provide ride-sharing services such as Mercedes’ Car2Go program. Netflix has paved the way for traditional media companies by demonstrating that web-based programming is not only reliable but that consumers are ready and willing to make the switch. The only other options, it seems, are to either buy out your competition or find other sources of revenue.

ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCHERS: THE SILENCE IS DEAFENING

For all its sustainable potential, the collaborative economy is a topic which has been all but ignored by environmental researchers. In some cases, the environmental benefits seem to be obvious. Every shared car eliminates 5 to 20 cars from circulation and bike sharing initiatives take cars off the road. Office space cooperatives (co-working) reduce energy use and the amount of equipment needed.

The environmental benefits of the collaborative economy make intuitive sense, but good scientists know intuition is not proof, and there are cases in which the environmental benefits of the collaborative economy are less clear. For example, the positive environmental effect of car-sharing only matters if car-sharers would have owned a car otherwise (surveys in the USA indicate that is the case, but is it the same elsewhere?). If consumers switch from buying products in stores to renting them online – will increased shipping pollution outweigh the benefits of reduced production? Then there is also the issue that the collaborative economy has the potential to increase demand and the total market size by enlisting new segments of society – good for business, bad for the environment.

As promising as the collaborative economy is from a sustainability perspective, there is no “silver bullet” to achieve sustainable development. Sustainability scientists have a responsibility to research the benefits which collaborative consumption can achieve in order to help co-shape and accompany its development – an opportunity which, so far, is being missed. Such research will not only better define the type and magnitude of the benefits we may expect, but it will also illuminate the limits of what is possible. And just like good policy – encouraging collaborative consumption as a viable sustainability pathway needs to be tailored to time and place, and researchers and scientists in all areas of sustainability science need to step up to the plate.