When I started my PhD researching the sharing economy, I was largely motivated by the sustainability potential often attributed to the sharing economy. I recognise the urgent threat of climate change and biodiversity loss, largely attributed to our unsustainable patterns of resource production and consumption. As such, I believe that we need systemic changes to our consumption patterns, and sharing represents one practice that may seek to promote a transition towards new ways of consuming (e.g. shared-ownership, sufficiency).

However, quite quickly, I saw a disconnect between this potential and the practices that were being included as part of the sharing economy by academic and societal actors. Of course, I understand why entrepreneurs and even cities embraced disparate practices (e.g. sharing, renting, buying, swapping, gifting) corralled under the banner of ‘the sharing economy’; actors see the sharing economy as a buzzword that provides competitive advantage or economic opportunity, in addition to the potential to offer more sustainable consumption options. But, what happens when Airbnb drives up rent, gentrifying a neighbourhood? Or, when drivers for Uber, who do not have access to benefits offered by traditional forms of employment, are unable to afford the cost of healthcare or childcare? How will regulators or society act in the face of growing criticism of practices attributed to the sharing economy? Will the sustainability potential that brought me to research the sharing economy ever be realised.

It was these thoughts that motivated the research conducted by Matthias Lehner – Postdoc in sustainable consumption – and myself. In early January, we published the article Defining the Sharing Economy for Sustainability. We embarked in a year-long effort to analyse the definitions of the sharing economy provided within academic literature in order to synthesise the characteristics of the sharing economy that prioritise sustainability.

Our research began with a systematic literature review. We reviewed 2270 articles to arrive at a final sample, which included 251 academic articles published between 1978 and 2017. We used NVivo, a software to support analysis of qualitative data, to identify the definitions of ‘sharing economy’ included in each article. Then, we coded each article to detect relevant characteristics of the sharing economy. Coding is the process of assigning meaning to a “chunk” of text. At the conclusion of coding these definitions, we had categories that were descriptive of the broad definitions of the sharing economy. However, many of these characteristics do not support more sustainability outcomes.

The next phase of our research was to examine the data and propose characteristics of the sharing economy for sustainability. Many of the practices discussed as part of the sharing economy in our study do not and will not lead to more sustainable outcomes. In addition, there were tensions that needed to be resolved between the definitions, namely, the extent of online mediation, whether the sharing economy allows for the transfer of ownership, and the role of money involved in the exchange. We sought to prioritise sustainability and resolve these tensions by proposing characteristics of the sharing economy.

Our work led to the following definition of the sharing economy for sustainability:

The sharing economy is a socio-economic system that leverages technology to mediate two- or multi-sided markets, which facilitate temporary access to goods that are under-utilised, tangible, and rivalrous.

Our definition has implications on how the sharing economy is currently conceptualised (see Figure).

  1. We exclude business-to-consumer models (e.g. Zipcar, Car2Go, DonkeyRepublic) as the platform is not a two- or multi-sided market and does not leverage under-utilised goods. As a result, many carsharing platforms fall outside of our definition of the sharing economy.

  2. We exclude second-hand and redistribution markets (e.g. Blocket, eBay, second-hand stores) because these exchanges lead to the transfer of ownership instead of facilitating access. While these practices likely lead to more sustainable outcomes, we suggest that these platforms more align with the circular economy (slowing resource loops through increasing intensity of use) instead of the sharing economy.

  3. We exclude intangible resources such as time, knowledge, software, and streaming content. These resources are often not rivalrous, meaning they can be used by multiple people at the same time. Furthermore, while digitalisation may lead to more sustainable outcomes, there is no clear mechanism for ownership. We also argue that platforms like Netflix, Spotify and Twitter, while discussed in literature, do not embody the spirit of the sharing economy.

  4. Despite transfer of ownership, we suggest that consumables are included as part of the sharing economy. Consumables include goods like food and personal care products, which require transfer of ownership in order to use. It is difficult to return food once consumed or to put a spritz of perfume back into the bottle.

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We adopt this definition in the research project Urban Sharing: Sustainability and Institutionalisation Pathways, which received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement No. 771872). We hope that this definition of the sharing economy for sustainability helps to indicate those practices within the sharing economy that may lead to more sustainable outcomes as well as to support those actors that have the sharing economy

The academic article is published in a special issue called Sharing Economy for Sustainability in the MDPI Journal Sustainability. It is available open access here: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/11/3/567