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The term “sharing economy” needs to go away

By January 22, 2016Uncategorized

It’s a term that is all the rage – the “sharing economy.” It’s right up there with “collaborative consumption” and other flashy terms that seem to be symbolizing a new economy. Unfortunately, it’s also a term that needs to go away if we’re to build a truly new economy that isn’t exploitative, that isn’t based on privately accumulating wealth at the detriment to others, and that is instead based on building up our neighbours and our communities.

At first, the idea of a sharing economy seems to be something that we should all sign up for – instead of people accumulating things and wealth for private benefit, sharing economy companies and organizations propose that we can take the things that we have and instead share them with each other, building networks of circulation amongst each other and building social capital in communities that have long suffered a decline.

As proponents of social enterprise and organizations building social purposes into their work, this proposition is something that is incredibly enticing – we want to build an economy just like this! We want an economy that builds connections between people while at the same time it enables them to collectively and collaboratively meet each others’ needs. It’s the kind of economy that works well in Mondragon, Spain, and Bologna, Italy. It’s part of the work that we do and the support we give to groups who are out there, doing that kind of work themselves.

But there’s a problem in this conception, and in the term “sharing economy.”

It’s not necessarily a problem with the term – we’re all taught from an early age that “sharing is caring” and that it’s better to work with each other than work against each other.

But somehow, somewhere, we lose track of this idea of sharing things. Sometime after elementary school, we learn that working hard, individually, is the path to individual prosperity. And that’s how we frame out the rest of the work that we do for the rest of our lives, in most cases.

And that allows the idea of the “sharing economy” to become perverted, to become a lie. And in reality, the term “sharing economy” is a lie, a myth; it take the promise of a better way of living with each other and together and changes it into something else.

As Natalia Fernandez says,

I wonder if any sharing culture exists as such in the country that takes pride in being the cradle of new social change. […] The problem is that when a concept is stripped of meaning, it ends up creating disappointment, and that disappointment reflects not just on the one who made false promises, but what was promised.

When we look at the companies out there that claim to be part of the sharing economy — companies like AirBNB, and Uber — we don’t see companies that are based on the idea of sharing things amongst each other for private benefit. Certainly, the activities that go on through AirBNB and Ubver can, at some level, be seen as sharing – when you share an apartment that you’re not presently using with someone else for a short time, then you’re definitely sharing. Same idea if you give someone a ride on your way to where you’re going – you’re sharing something that you have and that others can use as well.

But this idea gets perverted because companies like AirBNB and Uber don’t exist with building social capital and encouraging people to work together as their social and societal goals. They have no social purpose; they are not social enterprises. Their purpose is to generate profit – to extract revenue from the positive social relationships that can exist in communities where we share things with each other.

AirBNB and Uber are not “sharing economy” companies. They’re micro-renting companies. They exist to enable the classic, business and profit based relationships that we have with each other, at a new, micro-level.

AirBNB and Uber are not changing the economy – they’re deepening it; they’re reinforcing it. Imagine if municipalities started charging entrance fees for corner parks and swingsets – they could call themselves part of the sharing economy too, if we wouldn’t see the immediate lie for what it was, a new way of privatizing and monetizing the better parts of our humanity.

This is a serious danger for social enterprise and social impact organizations.

This term, the “sharing economy,” has become perverted. It is itself a lie to people who want a better world, who want better ways of interacting and living with each other, and who are willing to put their personal resources into it. Instead of building collaboratively owned organizations, where resources are owned and shared commonly, sharing economy companies instead reinforce private ownership and the extraction of wealth from that private ownership.

We need to change this term to change our understanding. We need to abandon the term “sharing economy” in order to abandon the assumptions behind it.

If we want social impact organizations and social enterprises to actively build a better economy and a better world, we can’t go for the flashy terms that are in vogue and that have already been co-opted. We need to build our own, just as we build a better economy and a better world.

The challenge isn’t small. To accomplish this, we need to think about what we do and how we tell the stories about what we do. And then we need to do better. We’re here to help your organizations do that. Get in touch.

About Kevin Harding

Kevin Harding is a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, and is a volunteer board member of the Art for Impact Society. He has worked in the nonprofit, public, and cooperative sector for some time, and has a passion for working with coops, nonprofits, and advocacy groups that want to make a better world. A coop developer, he strongly believes that cooperatives can build a better world.

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