“Sharing is the new having”, is what every trend watcher will tell you. Why purchase a drill if you use it only twice a year? Or why buy a car if it is more often than not standing still in front of your house? Doesn’t sharing make for a better alternative?
In this way, we can maintain our level of comfort, while needing less stuff, to the benefit of the environment as well as our wallets. Sharing seems to provide a hopeful answer to our consumerist society, which currently demands more of the earth than it can bear.
The importance of this evolution is hard to underestimate. It shows a cultural switch: the status that goes together with owning a commodity (expressive consumption) is waning. Young people around the globe are evermore reluctant to buy cars, even to get a driver’s license[i]. Nonetheless, status culture is not over yet, bearing in mind the almost omnipresent desire for status items such as iPhones.
Some people view sharing initiatives as frontrunners of a new, solidary and sustainable economy. Reality is, as always, more complex, as these different initiatives are grounded in different models of cooperation, ownership and value creation. And, unfortunately, these different models of sharing do not generate the same societal and financial return at all. Some of them are forms of ‘sharewashing’:
“Sharewashing does more than just misrepresent things like renting, working, and surveilling as ‘sharing’. It does more than just stretch and contort the meaning of the word ‘sharing’ until it practically loses all meaning. It also disables the very promise of an economy based on sharing by stealing the very language we use to talk about it, turning a crucial response to our impending ecological crisis into another label for the very same economic logic which got us into that crisis in the first place.” [ii]
Problems with ‘sharewashing’
The following four initiatives demonstrate the differences between types of sharing and show that caution about ‘sharewashing’ is necessary:
- The first example is the car sharing system Autopia. This association supports citizens who want to share their car as peers: a so-called peer-to-peer system. The model commits to a clear-cut societal goal: dedicated citizens cooperate to make mobility more sustainable. Furthermore, the system does not generate a financial return in the classical, economic sense of the term. This is an example of ‘urban commons’: something citizens create together, without being tied to a logic of profit. Cooperation is of the highest degree: property and added value are shared transparently.
- Airbnb is a second example: subletting the otherwise empty bedroom in your house. The logic of sharing is still at play – why not share your unused bedroom with someone who needs a short-term place to stay? – but it comes a bit closer to the current economic system. The lessor actually makes a profit, and more importantly: the system is in the hands of one company, operative according to stock exchange capitalism. This means that, in the end, the system is determined by speculation and the excessive demands of shareholders, i.e. the ones responsible for the financial crisis. In other words, Airbnb turns us all into mini-capitalists.
- The paradox thickens with Freecycle, a network of communities whose members give away their possessions for free. This ‘gift economy’ is the opposite of casino capitalism and deserves our full support. However, while some communities are active on independent websites and Yahoo Groups, they oftentimes use Facebook as a platform for their activities. The painful paradox here, indeed, is that Facebook collects data from all the members of Freecycle, and sells it to multinationals.[iii]
The car sharers of Autopia are citizens who act autonomously, whereas the members of Freecycle have no say over the economic model at all, because Facebook can pull the plug out of these initiatives by changing the rules in the small print, leaving the user with the sole option of accepting or declining the changes[iv]. Or Facebook might cease to be free of cost within the next couple of years. Meanwhile, Facebook is making ton of money on the backs of people who are networking for a sustainable economy.
And then there is Uber, riding the wave of sympathy that has engulfed the sharing initiatives. Can one bear a grudge against someone who uses his or her car more efficiently and earns a little extra time as a taxi driver for a few spare hours? Are the unions, internationally uniting against Uber, just being sour or is there more at stake? Some economists say that we should let the markets play, since there’s no stopping innovation. But again, it is not that simple, because the company behind Uber does not want any free market process.
A free market runs smoothly when there is sufficient demand and supply, and when everyone has adequate information to take rational decisions. To achieve such a market equilibrium, government regulation is necessary, providing legislation to prevent secret price agreements and the formation of monopolies. Uber, however, wants neither the mechanism of the free market nor regulation by the government. It simply demands the freedom to broker a monopoly.
Compare this with a housing market where only one company in the world would know what sellers ask for their house and what potential buyers would be willing to offer. This is exactly how Uber operates: it is a broker functioning on the basis of a secret algorithm. Neither client nor driver is given any information on other clients or suppliers. The company’s goal is to replace an open market, regulated by the government, by a sealed-off Uber monopoly. This is not just bad for the free market, it no longer has anything in common with the sharing initiatives either, where citizens work transparently together to strive for a better society. At the end of the day, Uber does not share at all: not sharing is what lies at the essence of their business model, financed by Goldman Sachs.
The challenge that sharing initiatives face, is put into clear words by Michel Bauwens (founder of the Peer2Peer Network) in his book ‘De wereld redden’ (Saving the world): “How can we build a new system that allows people to produce according to the peer-production logic, without introducing a capitalist logic that is bound to destroy the peer-production?”
The government has a twofold assignment. Firstly, it needs to adapt (and strengthen) its regulations to new players on the market, such as Uber. Obstructing innovation would be foolish, but we should not be easy-going with disruptors of the market who clearly do not take the interests of society to heart.
Do we really want to replace the job of a cab driver by underpaid freelancers whose statuses are precarious? Secondly, the government needs to offer a legislative framework that supports citizen’s initiatives instead of working against them. History can inspire us here. Private and public property are known concepts, but owning a piece of land commonly, as a ‘commons’, was made impossible in Belgium shortly after its establishment as a nation. And after the introduction of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994, Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was changed with the result that the collective property of agricultural grounds, one of the big achievements of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920 ), was no longer possible.
We carry responsibility
Not only the government plays a clear, facilitating role in this, we as citizens carry a responsibility as well. If we wish to transform the authentic need to share things into a sustainable economy, we need to do more than share electric appliances. We need to shape the new economy ourselves.
The most promising model to do so, is the cooperative model. While cooperatives make a profit as a side goal, every user can become co-owner, and every shareholder’s voice carries the same weight in the decision-making process. The cooperative sector is still rather small, but citizens are launching more and more initiatives and those that already exist are growing.
This is especially true in the field of renewable energy. In Germany almost 50 percent of installations of renewable energy are owned by citizens or their cooperatives. And in the Netherlands there are already more than hundred cooperatives in the field of renewables. Whether these ‘commons’ can become a real alternative, is up to us. But it is possible. To take the example of my own, small country: there are over 230 billion euros in Belgian savings accounts. For the moment, banks decide how this money is used, or rather, how it is not used. If only a couple of percentages of this money were invested in cooperatives steered by citizens, then a sustainable economy could develop on the basis of open cooperation, shared ownership and creation of social value.
Last but not least, if a peer-to-peer initiative controlled by citizens came to the fore as an alternative to Facebook, then at least we would know that our data aren’t given away to large corporations.
[i] Both in America (The key to driving Gen Y, Think Newsletter, december 2012, (https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/key-to-driving-gen-y.html), Teens delaying licensure – a cause for concern?, NewsRoom AAA, 01/08/2013 (http://newsroom.aaa.com/2013/08/teens-delaying-licensure-a-cause-for-concern/)), in Australia (Raimond, T., Milthorpe, F. Why are young people driving less?, NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics, 01/10/2010), and in Europe (Ruud, A., Nordbakker, S., Decreasing driving license rates amoung young people – consequences for local public transport, Institute of Transport Economics, Oslo Norway, 2005) institutions and car manufacturers have studied the subject.
[ii] Kalamar, A., Sharewashing is the new greenwashing, OpEdNews, 13/05/2013 (http://www.opednews.com/articles/2/Sharewashing-is-the-New-Gr-by-Anthony-Kalamar-130513-834.html)
[iii] A.o. through appdata.com, the MAU/DAU rankings of the freecycle network are freely available, together with other metrics.
[iv]Electronic Privacy Information Center: https://epic.org/privacy/facebook/