Last updated: February 2016
Is Sharing Really Caring?
Simon Birch investigates
It’s good to share isn’t it? This is why, last summer, the UK’s first shop was opened where customers can share rather than buy stuff. The shop in Frome in Somerset is simply called Share and acts just like a library. But instead of borrowing books, for a small charge shoppers can borrow everything from donated prams to power drills.
“Enabling people to share resources not only saves money but reduces waste and carbon too,” says Anna Francis, Frome Town Council’s energy and recycling officer, who helped set up Share on a very worn shoestring.
Of course the idea behind Share is nothing new. Those of us who’ve been active in the green economy have been sharing for years, whether it be using Freecycle to give away our unwanted clobber or simply being members of co-ops which put sharing at their cores. What’s new though is that big business has now spotted one vast opportunity to make serious money out of what previously we all did either for a pittance or for nothing at all.
Airbnb and Uber
Airbnb, which lets homeowners rent out their spare rooms, and Uber, which allows car-owners to become part-time cabbies, are the two American companies now storming the world ushering in a new-style share economy, one run on projected profits rather than generosity and altruism. Using smartphone technology, snowballing numbers of digital companies are unleashing a revolution in how we live and work by providing services which offer to do everything from doing your shopping to walking your dog and yes, hiring out power drills.
London anti-Uber taxi protest, photo credit: David Holt
Supporters of this share economy rightly claim that it has massive environmental benefits, for example, by helping to reduce the numbers of cars on the road through car sharing. Plus, according to some estimates, the share economy will be worth over £9 billion in the UK alone by 2025, providing thousands of new jobs.
What About the Workers?
However, in the rush to talk up the benefits of this new digital gold rush there’s been little mention of the downsides, in particular how the workers in this new sector will fare. None of the jobs in the share economy are full-time in the traditional sense. Instead, workers are expected to become freelance contractors and be flexible in the hours they work.
Consequently, these digital companies save themselves a fortune by not having to cough up for all those pesky costs associated with having full-time staff, such as insurance and holiday pay. No wonder George Osborne is such a keen supporter of the share economy as it represents nothing more than turbo-charged capitalism.
“Workers in the share economy don’t have any sort of rights, not even basic safeguards such as ensuring they’re paid the minimum wage,” says John Park, assistant general secretary of Community, a trade union representing 30,000 workers in a wide range of different industries.
“If you’re renting your spare room or giving someone a lift to work in your car, who is looking after you if things go wrong?” “In the past, unions identified where exploitation existed and where people didn’t have access to any rights,” he says. “We must fast forward 150 years and ensure that unions are relevant to what is a group of exposed and exploited workers today in 2016.”
Others even believe that the word sharing itself is now little more than one giant misnomer, one used by companies to wrap their business in a fluffy PR blanket in the hope that the positive connotations around the word will rub off onto their company, which in reality is just a money-grabbing operation.
Kelly Carlin writing in the online magazine Motherboard has coined a new word for this: sharewashing. And a recent report from the Royal Society for Arts asks whether all this commercialised sharing is really just another word for renting.
A Role For Co-ops?
Some people think that co-ops offer a way back to the original ideas of the share economy through genuine shared ownership. “In theory, anything from Facebook to Airbnb could work on a cooperative basis,” believes Ed Mayo from Co-ops UK, the trade body representing co-ops, though he concedes that digital co-ops that can rival the likes of Uber are still in the early stages of development.
What is needed, concluded a recent conference in New York on a co-op alternative for the share economy, are digital-based co-ops that would serve the needs of those involved, rather than simply skim off financial returns for investors.
“Done right,” “The share economy can open up new business models and new markets without losing its soul along the way.”