Why hasn’t the sharing revolution taken off?

2016 Library of Things Launch-22This post is by Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance.

Perhaps the favourite statistic of those advocating for more sharing in our economy is that the average power drill is used for only 12 or 13 minutes over the entire course of its lifetime. This is especially significant as millions of new household power drills are sold in the UK each year, and then simply gather dust in sheds up and down the country. To people thinking about better use of resources, it seems like there’s an obvious problem here, as well as an obvious solution: a nation stockpiling power tools that are hardly ever used ought to share them more.

The idea is simple: the next time you need a hole in your wall, rather than buying a power drill, you should simply be able to borrow or rent one or, at the very least, acquire a pre-used version, either from a neighbour, a centralised lending pool or a company. Doing so would not only save the material embodied in a new power drill itself, but also all the resources used in the manufacturing process. General estimates suggest that every tonne of product that makes it to the UK market requires ten tonnes of fuel and resources to produce, a figure rising to 100 tonnes if we include water. When it comes to power drills in particular, WRAP says that 91 per cent of a drill’s environmental impact occurs in the materials and processing phase, and only two per cent occurs in use.

What’s more, advocates of the sharing economy point out that its potential benefits are not limited to the all too niche concern around limiting material consumption, but extend to the more compelling realms of personal finances and social connections, saving people money through avoided purchases and potentially encouraging them to meet new people, make new friends and generally become more active in their community.

Where is the sharing revolution?
From an individual’s point of view, then, the sharing model should represent a win for their environmental impact, for their pocket and for their social life. And for nearly a decade now, we’ve been hearing that people are on the brink of realising these obvious benefits and embracing more collaborative models of consumption. But, although some businesses like Airbnb and Uber have found significant success in this area (two examples that are not without their detractors), the promised community-based sharing revolution has so far failed to materialise. Indeed, plenty of platforms designed to facilitate transactions, launched with much hope and fanfare, have folded relatively quickly.

By way of example, Compare and Share, a comparison marketplace, founded in 2013 to offer “thousands of sharing experiences in one place”, released a report saying that the sharing economy’s growth rate was outstripping that of Facebook, Google and Yahoo combined in 2015 and that global participation was due to double in the following 12 months. But, less than 12 months later, Compare and Share had closed its doors.

Understanding that public attitudes are key
Part of the trouble is it’s not enough to have a brilliant concept with obvious benefits; you also have to get the public to buy into an idea, which is not always as straightforward as it ought to be.

As part of a project for the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIE-MAP), of which Green Alliance is a partner, researchers at the University of Cardiff are now looking into the role of the public in transitioning to more circular models of consumption in the UK. The project has seen a team of social scientists, led by Professor Nick Pidgeon, begin investigations into public perceptions, values and emotions surrounding ‘low material futures’, of which the sharing economy is but one potential aspect.

This research has thrown up some public concerns that could come as a surprise to those approaching the sharing economy concept from a theoretical perspective. At a recent event at St Martin in the Fields, Green Alliance gathered representatives from the resource sector to hear some of Cardiff team’s findings from in depth workshops in which they asked members of the public to consider different resource efficient futures.

For scenarios involving peer to peer trading and community sharing, some of the points of resistance the researchers encountered included concerns about the potential hassle of having to run around to arrange the sharing of resources. There were also worries about trusting neighbours or businesses offering shared goods. Some suggested that shared electrical items would need to be PAT tested before every handover because they could develop faults and others expressed a deep suspicion of neighbours’ sanitary habits, with one respondent worried that kitchen products would become mouldy as they became clogged and congealed with old food.

Of course, as some of the attendees pointed out, people might be apprehensive when they hear about new ideas like this, but react more positively when they actually engage with them. Such was the case with a community fridge, where people leave surplus food for anyone to take, launched by behaviour change charity Hubbub in Swadlincote, Sainsbury’s ‘food waste town’. There, initial fears of misuse and vandalism proved unfounded, and the fridge was so well used that a second one was quickly set up.

Avoiding another Green Deal gone wrong
Nonetheless, those of us concerned with bringing about a more resource efficient future need to understand how people will react, so as to avoid a repeat of the situation of the coalition government’s failed Green Deal. There, too, there was an obvious problem and a seemingly obvious solution: a nation with energy inefficient homes ought to install energy efficiency improvements, and could be encouraged to do so with the help of government loans repaid painlessly through energy bills. Few members of the public took up the offer, though, with some citing the hassle of the application process or a reluctance to tie debt to their homes. The scheme was scrapped after only two years.

The coalition government also expressed an interest in the sharing economy, launching a report in 2014 with the titular aim of Unlocking the sharing economy in which it claimed: “Where other countries and cities are closing down consumer choice, and limiting people’s freedom to make better use of their possessions, we are embracing it.” If the government in place after June’s election wishes to continue in this effort – and we certainly hope it will want to bring about a low material future in some way – it would do well to understand better people’s perceptions and likely reactions if it is to shape policies that will take off and run successfully.

[Image: Sebastian Wood]

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