Commentary on Debating the Sharing Economy
It has been quite interesting to see the sharing economy come of age. Four years ago, when I first started working at the magazine Shareable, no one knew what I was talking about when I said the words "sharing economy." I will never forget the moment when Danielle Sacks wrote an article in Fast Company linking babysitting co-ops, co-working spaces, and platforms like Couchsurfing and Airbnb together as part of the "sharing economy"—it felt like the term, and the movement, had arrived.
Since that time, so much has happened. The sharing economy has moved from its infancy into its adolescence. As such, it is very sophomoric in nature. Some parts are developed (yes, it is possible for peer-to-peer exchange to happen on a large scale), and others are not. Will P2P activities be outlawed all together? I think we still forget that this is a very real possibility. How do we ensure that the inefficiencies and faults of the old economy—discrimination, exploitation, inequality—are not replicated in the new one, even as they continue to persist in our society and the economic models that support it?
Everyone involved (both those on the playing field and those observing from the sidelines) are struggling to define what exactly this complex, nuanced, amorphous activity is, all while directly feeling and seeing its power and effects all around us. And of course, we all want to know what this shift says about the future of the economy, work, the environment, social connections, civic engagement, and the future of cites as we know them.
Like Juliet Schor, I, too, believe we are at a critical juncture in the evolution of the sharing economy. We are far along enough to be able to hold ourselves accountable by evaluating its effects on society, the economy, and the environment. And we have enough legitimacy to have academics, activists, and our peers from other movements help us come up with metrics that can help us shape the next iteration of this space. Having worked with people who have been building the sharing economy for a few years (providers, users, participants), I can say from firsthand experience that they will be the ones to shape the future of the sharing economy. As Schor mentions, sharers are already organizing for fair treatment and demanding eco-accountability and attention to community. We will continue to see that movement grow, and it is my hope that they will be a guiding star towards better outcomes.
I work in the sharing economy because I believe its foundation—getting what you need directly from your peers—is a shift that can lead to a reorientation of how people view themselves, their neighbors, their communities, their cities, and their own latent agency. I also believe that we are the answer to the questions we are posing about what this new economy will bring. So, in addition to asking the tough questions, it is crucial that we start to voice what exactly we want this new economy to do for people and planet.
I deeply appreciate Schor's ability to catalog where we have been, where we are headed, and what we need to be critical, careful, and considerate of. We need more perspectives like this that shine a light on all sides of the sharing economy's evolution, if the sharing economy is to reach its promise.
As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.