Sharing is not always caring: paradoxes in the sharing economy.

This project aims to initiate a research project, between the Copernicus Institute and Utrecht School of  Economics, to explore the paradoxes of the sharing economy to foster its positive sustainability impact. 

The sharing economy, once the poster child of sustainability innovation, is in a crisis (Schor & Vallas, 2021). While sharing has the potential to contribute to sustainable development, for instance by reducing the need for novel assets and increasing the utility of existing assets (Benoit et al., 2017), it has never reached its full sustainability potential and the recent discourse has acknowledge the ‘dark side’ of the sharing economy (Acquier et al., 2018; Schaefers et al., 2021) and its adverse effects such as stirring more consumption (e.g., Reuter, 2022). The troubled outlook of the sharing economy has shown many facets.

Firstly, the vague sharing economy umbrella term has been used for various, exploitative business models that abuse the idea of sharing, such as, buisnesses relabelling their asset or service provision as “sharing” (e.g., access-based services, business-to-consumer carsharing). Secondly, the digital accessibility of sharing has led to various issues of asymmetric information and trust (Hong et al., 2019). While true sharing mostly occurred within established social circles (e.g., neighborhoods), digital peer-to-peer sharing platforms facilitate sharing between strangers for monetary compensation (Ert et al., 2016). Thirdly, the sharing economy has been rocked by various social issues ranging from sexual abuse (Ravenelle, 2019), discrimination (e.g., Wong et al., 2020), to assault (Griffith et al., 2018), further deterring potential participants. However, understanding the dynamics that give rise to such adverse effects could help to realize the sharing economy’s potential to contribute to sustainable development. 

This project aims to understand the underlying motivational paradoxes of the peer-to-peer sharing economy to foster wider participation and sustainable business models, with a plan to explore the below paradoxes;

  • Trust vs. anonymity? Trust in the sharing economy has shown to be key in motivating participation (e.g., Hawlitschek et al., 2016). Further, various sharing offers aim to appeal to consumers by disclosing detailed information (e.g., Turo). However, too extensive information (e.g., knowledge about numbers of previous users of the bed currently being used) negatively impacts service usage intention. While there exists previous research on e.g., contamination concerns in the sharing economy (e.g., Hazée et al., 2019), we would like to explore the trade-off between necessary information to generate trust and rejection-causing detail. 
  • Standardization vs. personalization? We know from the services literature that personalization increases perceived service quality (Bock et al., 2016). Further, various sharing offers try to differentiate themselves from standardized services (e.g., hotel chains) by promotion their personalized experience (e.g., AirBnB). Still, service risk reduction and observations from the sharing economy suggest that standardized services – as they reduce uncertainty for the consumer and costs for the provider – are often very successful business models. 
  • Economic vs. social? Existing studies highlight economic motives as key drivers of sharing consumption (e.g., Klein et al., 2022). However, true sharing proposes non-monetary exchanges and various participants also highlight the importance of communal identification and altruism (Wilhelms et al., 2018). It is unclear to what extent do social motives motivate participation in peer-to-peer sharing. 
  • Green vs. Greed? Previous studies indicate the secondary importance of sustainability motives e.g., in the mobility context (e.g., Schaefers, 2013). Still, most sharing providers advertise their services as green. Further understanding of the importance and trade-offs between these motives, and in how far green branding helps to bring users aboard but also supports the legitimization of unsustainable behaviors, is needed. 

By providing further insights into these paradoxes, the project team aim to improve understanding about how consumers can actually be motivated to participate in the sharing economy and thereby leverage its sustainability benefits.