Commentary on Juliet Schor’s “Debating the Sharing Economy”
Juliet Schor offers us one of the most lucid, insightful, and well-researched analyses of the so-called “sharing economy,” examining the self-proclaimed social and environmental transformations that for-profit companies have claimed, and concluding, rightly I think, that the capacity of sharing economy users to organize themselves is a central factor in truly unlocking the potential of the sharing model.
Indeed, the very diversity of projects and enterprises that might fall under the “sharing economy” umbrella begets a certain potential for more socially inclusive and ecologically responsible economies. However, given the urgency of our planetary situation right now—cascading social, ecological, economic, and climatic crises unfolding around the world – it seems imperative to ask whether more profound transformations are required than what the current “sharing economy” promises. As Schor’s initial research suggests, the social and ecological impacts of many “sharing economy” enterprises are ambiguous at best, and in some cases, they are demonstrably furthering the very ills of social segregation and increased carbon emissions they purport to solve.
It’s time to deeply question whether the economic practices that comprise the mainstream sharing economy—including the recirculation of goods, peer-to-peer service exchanges, and co-production of assets—can be meaningful catalysts for a just and sustainable transition without fundamentally changing the ownership and governance structures of our entire economy. After all, accumulation (of wealth, power, decision-making) is the antithesis of sharing, and that is precisely how many sharing economy companies are structurally designed to function.
Schor suggests that “the key to making sharing economies socially just is to emphasize an explicit politics of sharing, as well as nurturing collective, public forms of sharing.” Janelle Orsi, my colleague and co-founder of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, has been leading the development of a set of principles that might define both a politics of sharing and a set of practices for realizing a “true sharing economy:”
1. Sharing Wealth and Prosperity: True sharing economy projects work to fairly distribute wealth to those that create it, generate inclusive prosperity in communities that have been historically marginalized, and explicitly work to reverse the trend of increasing wealth concentration. Examples such as worker cooperatives that redistribute earnings back to members based on participation in the business and projects that guarantee a living wage embody this principle.
2. Sharing Power and Decision-Making: Democratic and/or highly participatory governance structures ensure that users, members, workers, communities, and other stakeholders can meaningfully participate in decision-making and spread that power throughout an organization or network. For example, new governance systems such as Holacracy (which the Sustainable Economies Law Center uses), and more radically democratic structures employed by social movements such as the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil), offer different ways to ensure responsive and inclusive decision-making that incorporate the interests of all stakeholders. Shared power can mean that money does not buy influence, for example by structuring an organization on a one-member, one-vote basis.
3. Sharing Capitalization and Risk: Investment and risk-distribution can also be democratized through innovations in crowdfunding, so that neither risk of loss, nor rewards for investment continue to be highly concentrated and unequally distributed. People deserve to be rewarded for bearing some risk, but the expectation of significant returns from investors mandates an infinite growth model that is incompatible with the goals of social justice and ecological resilience. The People’s Community Market in Oakland, California, is one pioneering example of how to embody this principle.
4. Sharing Resources and Efforts: This has been one of the main promises of the “sharing economy,” and it can enable much more efficient and sustainable use of resources. However, truly shared resources and efforts do not create artificial scarcities (as short-term rentals have in some places) or enclose common resources that should remain collectively controlled. Time banks, tool-lending libraries, seed-saving collectives, community-owned renewable energy, and community-controlled water districts are examples of projects specifically designed to increase access to, and long-term stewardship of, essential resources.
5. Sharing Knowledge and Information: Transparency and accountability are both ways of increasing participation and empowering people to play active roles in truly shared projects. Ecuador’s Buen Conocer project, which Schor highlights, is a prime example of how institutions are beginning to reimagine economies based on open knowledge and open-source enterprise. Knowledge is, after all, one of the only things that can be freely shared without loosing any of it yourself.
6. Sharing Responsibility for the Common Good: Social, economic, and ecological crises are now truly collective, and demand collective action. Thus, “true sharing economy” projects and enterprises should prioritize advancement of a just and sustainable transition, which requires actively dismantling structures of inequality and exploitation, and creating economic and ecologically regenerative alternatives.
We inhabit a moment of great uncertainty and opportunity. How can we harness both the uncertainty and the opportunity to create new ways of meeting our individual and collective needs in ways that uplift everyone and rebuild the common sources of wealth we all depend on? If the “sharing economy” is to contribute to that effort—and it certainly can—principles of sharing and equity must be woven into the very fabric of its being.