The Sharing Economy: In the Green or the Red When It Comes To Sustainability?

A Sierra Magazine article (2016-03-14) questioned whether emerging “sharing economy” industries (such as Uber or Airbnb) are actually environmentally friendly. From the article:

Prominent voices such as Van Jones, Rachel Botsman, and Annie Leonard have said that the sharing economywhether car-sharing, home-sharing or “stuff”-sharingis a way of using fewer resources by sharing what we have and producing and consuming less. The environmental benefits of home-sharing services like Airbnb and stuff-sharing platforms like Spinlister, Poshmark, and SnapGoods have become conventional wisdom. A 2015 PricewaterhouseCoopers study found that 76 percent of American adults who are familiar with the sharing economy believe that it’s better for the environment.

But, in fact, hard data on the environmental benefits of the sharing economy is difficult to come by. Many green claims are anecdotal, and to the extent that we have data, the accumulating evidence indicates that the sharing economy is not quite so pro-environment. On the contrary, it appears that some services are having a harmful environmental impact by fueling an increase in personal consumption.

The article highlighted concerns from the cities of San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and London that ride-sharing services are increasing congestion and potentially decreasing public transit usage:

Ed Reiskin, director of transportation for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, says, “[Uber and Lyft] have put a lot more vehicles on the streets,” an estimated 15,000 autos in San Francisco alone. Not all of those vehicles are on the street at any one time, but thousands typically are, many of which double-park in bike lanes and bus stops when dropping off passengers, further snarling traffic flow. “They’re all contributing to the increased traffic,” Reiskin says. …

Indeed, ride-sharing may turn out to be a direct threat to public transit. The economics of public transit systems are built around the busiest bus or train lines, which are heavily used and profitable, subsidizing other routes which are not so full. That equation is crucial in allowing a public transit system to be citywide and serving less-populated neighborhoods. If a ride-sharing company like Uber begins offering service that sprints up and down the busiest and most profitable routes, such passenger poaching could destroy revenue for public transit. In Spain, the National Federation of Bus Transportation (Fenebús) has called for the closure of ride-sharing company BlaBlaCar because its operations are reducing the ridership of the mass transit companies.

The article also questioned the environmental impacts of other sharing economy industries, such as AirBnb and item sharing companies:

Beyond ride-sharing, there are other claims that home-sharing and various types of goods-sharing benefit the environment. In theory, by maximizing the use of underutilized properties and possessions, society will reduce production and consumption. But even the Economist, a publication normally bullish on the gig economy, admits, “In many cases, the benefits of sharing-economy services are that they reduce cost and improve convenienceboth of which might, in fact, boost consumption.” The “sharing” platforms are creating new markets that appear to be expanding the volume of commerce. Professor Juliet Schor from Boston College, who also has been pro-sharing economy, says, “The actual environmental impacts of the [sharing] sites are far more complicated.” To assess overall ecological impacts, Schor says, “we have to consider ripple effects. My students and I have found that Airbnb users are taking more trips now and that the availability of cheap ride services is diverting some people from public transportation. That means the platforms result in higher carbon emissions.” …

The notion that sharing will lead society to produce less stuff also shows little understanding of the “economics of depreciation.” If more people are sharing the same device, it means that device will have to be replaced sooner. …

[Besides vehicles, the] economics of depreciation would also apply when commercially “sharing” your bicycle, your electric drill, your washing machine, and most other types of personal property. Crucially, it’s not only the number of devices produced that is important, but the number of “usage hours” put on each device. If your shared items have more “usage hours,” they will wear out more quickly.

The article concluded by calling for a “fact-based discourse” on the environmental benefits and drawbacks of sharing economy businesses.

Useful Links

2015 Report “The Sharing Economy” (PricewaterhouseCoopers)

2015 Economist Article “Is the ‘Sharing Economy’ Sustainable?”