Sharing, not owning

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When we need something glamorous to wear or an exclusive bag, a car for our next trip or tools to help us undertake some home improvements, we may decide to borrow rather than buy – either on a one-off basis or by subscribing to a sharing service. All over the world, more and more of us are going online to do this. What began as a social trend in the IT industry in around 2009 has now evolved to become a new sector in its own right, known as the “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption”.

Sharing is as old as humankind itself; what is new are digital technologies

 the sharing economy is revolutionising the concept of ownership

Increasing numbers of people in Germany are taking advantage of such services. But what does this kind of consumerism and business activity have to do with sharing? Sharing is as old as humankind itself, so what is so new about it? Ever since the sharing economy began to take off at the start of this decade, these are the questions that have been interesting Harald Heinrichs, a professor of sustainability and politics at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. “At first this was a phenomenon born out of crisis,” explains Heinrichs. “People attending conferences in Silicon Valley couldn’t afford the exorbitant hotel prices. So private accommodation was found for them – that at least is how the sharing economy is alleged to have begun. What was new was that digital technologies and social media were available to facilitate the process, and that the sustainability angle was emphasised.”

How sharing can increase consumer awareness

In the meantime, Internet platforms like Airbnb have created a business model out of this kind of hospitality – they are expanding worldwide but also causing conflict as a result. Local residents feel hard done-by because Airbnb brings hordes of overnight guests into the trendier districts of big cities, further limiting the number of flats available on what is already an overstretched housing market. This is because some people rent a flat simply to sublet it on a daily or weekly basis via Airbnb – often to tourists and rarely to locals. This deprives big city residents of rental apartments.

Many commercial sharing platforms are interested primarily in profit, with sustainability often being a lower priority. Other non-commercial services such as the German (only in German) platform have sustainable consumption as their explicit goal. People have teamed up here to “rescue” food – sharing it rather than throwing it away. Anyone who has leftover baked goods, vegetables or other foodstuffs can offer them on the website. Another example of a website that does far more than simply put people in touch with goods or services is (only in German). Here people can sign up to help finance agricultural businesses, receiving part of the harvest in return.

What are the social consequences of sharing?

Since 2014, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research has been funding research into all kinds of aspects related to the sharing economy through its “Sustainable Economy” and “Innovation and Technology Analysis” programmes. In this context, the Future Food Commons project of the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) is taking a close look at models such as the “Solidarische Landwirtschaft” website. Initial results of the empirical studies suggest that direct contact between consumers and farmers can contribute to sustainable consumption: consumers who help work on the fields or pack boxes of vegetables develop a greater appreciation for foods and tend to choose seasonal products. In addition, the social scientists check compliance with occupational health and safety regulations and explore how the new economic models affect social cohesion. Other research projects focus on the businesses themselves. Economists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI are studying how new online services such as machine rental concepts can boost growth and innovation in industrial companies.

How everyone can benefit from the sharing economy

It is not yet clear which recommendations the sharing economy researchers will make to politicians as a result of their work. For Harald Heinrichs, however, one thing is already certain: “If we are to achieve the original goal of sustainability, we will need the entire spectrum of models ranging from projects with a social focus to those with a pronounced commercial emphasis”. As he explains, this is because everyone will ultimately benefit from a good balance between different sharing models. This is good for the environment and natural resources, while at the same time saving people money – and allows companies to develop new business models and tap into new markets.


Leuphana University of Lüneburg

Leuphana University of Lüneburg sees itself as an active co-creator of social change processes. Research at Leuphana focuses on current societal issues and develops interdisciplinary solutions, and resides within four research initiatives: Education, Culture, Management and Entrepreneurship, and Sustainability.