The collaborative economy was propelled into global limelight thanks to wide-spread platform economy businesses such as Über and Airbnb. Also known as the ‘sharing economy’, the concept floats somewhere between theory and practice, business and not-for-profit.
Particularly scant thus far I have found the coverage of the potential of the sharing or collaborative economy in advancing the environmental agenda, or to use some more buzzwords, the circular economy and sustainability agendas. I would like to see these fields come together in theory, but also in practice.
Let me give you some examples.
A North-American non-profit car sharing scheme published in their 2013 fact sheet stunning environmental impacts: saved carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emissions (nearly 200 million kg in two years), saved miles driven, and saved fuel consumption. On top of these positive impacts the added benefits of car sharing include reduced congestion, reduced numbers of cars bought and reduced consumer costs (see e.g. here).
The global car sharing company Zipcar boasts 10 percent of members get rid of a car after joining, and 32 percent of users (they just passed the 1 million user mark last year) would have purchased a vehicle without the presence of the service.
In a Finnish study findings were even more striking (but sample small): 60 percent of households using car sharing had not owned a car before joining, 30 percent got rid of their car, 20 percent no longer needed to buy a car, and altogether after joining 80 per cent no longer owned a car.
Even organisations can cut their car mileage and need for fleets via sharing: Croydon council in London has some pretty staggering metrics on their partnership with Zipcar. Another fact sheet (in German) reminds us that car sharing is also for companies (not just the public sector).
These examples serve as poignant reminders that strength (and impact) lies in numbers.
Many car sharing companies (for profit or not) are making green investments in their fleet: interest in electric vehicle (EV) schemes is climbing. Also several initiatives in Europe aim at reducing CO 2 emissions from passenger vehicles, with one potential option being the deployment of EVs (Norway leads, Netherlands is runner-up).
Consumers’ (you and I) perception and willingness to purchase EVs lies at the heart of its potential to ‘go big’. The more we trust the message (e.g. on sustainability or ‘goodness’ of the EV as opposed to a combustion engine car), the more likely we are willing to pay, and eventually obtain one for ourselves. But even if we choose not to, there are options to support the ‘goodness’.
From a sustainable mobility perspective, the combination of sharing and EVs makes sense. For an individual it may be more difficult to make the EV investment, with its (still) higher price, limited range (battery) and subsequent lack of fulfilment of all their transport needs as compared with a traditional combustion engine vehicle. But with increasing car sharing and mobility as a service (MaaS) options, we may not need to own our cars much longer.
When it comes to the collaborative economy, car sharing only scrapes the surface. We could do much more ‘sharing’ that would leave the environment as well as our wallets in better state. Instead of increasing our material possessions, we can increasingly opt for services that deliver the same – or even better – product or outcome but via a service rather than material possessions. MaaS (mobility as a service and related platforms) is an example of this.
Sharing of power tools illustrates the idea of making better use of idling assets perfectly. Better utilisation of existing resources equals less need to use (virgin) resources in manufacturing new ones. This is environmental and resources sustainability at its core. Not all ‘things’ require huge amounts of rare earth elements to make (as do for instance mobile phones), but if less ‘things’ were needed, a lot of material would be saved. Not to mention CO 2 from transport (logistics) and electricity generation (again, manufacturing).
Whilst individual behaviour change (our everyday choices) is important when it comes to personal consumption – often considered a difficult thing to do on large scale – the question about the benefits of the collaborative economy is also about the possibility to improve practices within the wider system. It is, after all, total consumption that drives markets (up, down or reinvention!), like voting that drives politics.
Governments (national as well as local) have a role to play in supporting, even ‘nudging’ individuals, businesses and communities in this positive impact game: Who is the first to invent the best, most pragmatic and exciting solutions? When will the solutions be not only superior to the ones we have today, but a ‘must-have’ or rather ‘must-use’? The collective choice to use these initiatives will propel us all to a new consumption regime, benefitting everyone.
We are also setting an example for the next generations. In this, I strongly prefer not to follow my parents’ generation (the big cohorts born in late 40s, early 50s), as they seem to me to be the most consumerist of us all. We can all get by with a lot less, and that path can be taken and re-taken every day.
With the help of a little perseverance, some good governance, and a sharing (caring) attitude, we can make better economic and environmental decisions across society. Collaboratively.