Is the sharing economy really green?

sharing1So many assumptions underly conventional wisdom about all things green. That biofuels are better for the planet than burning fossil fuels. That bans on plastic bags help the environment. That electric cars reduce CO2 emissions. That eating meat is bad for the climate.

All these things are true, I believe. But what I believe doesn’t matter. The question is, where’s the evidence? On biofuels, plastic bags and electric cars, the environmental impacts depend on where the crops to make biofuels are grown, what replaces plastic bags, the electricity mix that powers the electric car and how the cows that went into your burger were raised.

The point is, the “environment” is an extraordinarily complex system, as is the economy. That’s the underlying message of a story that I wrote last week for the environmental website Ensia headlined Is Sharing Really Green?

Here’s how it begins:

I’m a big fan of the sharing economy. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stayed in a house I found onAirbnb and made my way around the city using uberX. I’ve written favorably about house sharingcar sharingbike sharingand getting rid of stuff you no longer want via yerdle. At environmental conferences, I’ve listened to evangelists for the sharing economy such as Lisa GanskyRobin Chase and Andy Ruben. Participating in the sharing economy can save money, open people up to new experiences and build a sense of community among strangers.

But I’m not convinced the sharing economy delivers the environmental benefits its proponents claim.

Because the sharing economy enables more efficient use of underutilized assets — a car that might otherwise sit in a driveway, an extra room in a home, an electric drill or even a wedding dress — conventional wisdom holds that the sharing economy is “green.” With a little help from Google, it’s easy to find headlines like “How Web Sharing Sites Can Save the Planet” and “The Sharing Economy for a Sustainable Future.” Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger and LifeEdited, has said the sharing economy “makes a lot of sense financially and environmentally as well.” In her book, The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, entrepreneur and investor Lisa Gansky writes: “Using sophisticated information systems, the Mesh [her term for the sharing economy] also deploys physical assets more efficiently. That boosts the bottom line, with the added advantage of lowering pressure on natural resources.” In an interview with Treehugger, Roo Rogers, co-author with Rachel Botsman of a book called What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, declared: “In my opinion — having been an environmentalist all my life — collaborative consumption has the potential to have the biggest environmental impact that we could ever have hoped for.”

But where’s the evidence? It’s hard to find.

I probably could have written that the evidence is non-existent, but the sharing economy is so new and so hard to measure that it’s no surprise that the case for its “green” benefits remains unproven.

I hasten to add that there are still good reasons to patronize Airbnb or Zipcar or Rent the Runway or the many other sharing sites that seem to be proliferating. There’s little harm done when we make personal choices based on our assumptions about what’s good for the planet.

But when big companies or, worse, governments set policy without questioning their assumptions, the consequences can be negative on a much broader scale. I’m afraid that happens a lot more often than it should.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Instead of shopping, why not yerdle?

It’s Black Friday. Instead of shopping, why not yerdle?

Yerdle is a sharing and shopping website and mobile app being launched today by two stalwarts of corporate sustainability — Adam Werbach, the former Sierra Club leader and Saatch & Saatchi marketing guy, and Andy Ruben, Walmart’s first sustainability director.

Andy and Adam, who are both 39 and live in San Francisco (natch), have come up with a very cool idea. Yerdle is a way for people who have stuff to give away, or other stuff they want, to share with one another–before heading out to the store to buy something new. By today, after a beta test in the Bay Area, they expect that more than 10,000 items will be offered on Yerdle.

I took a sneak peek at the site the other day and found, among other things, a Ikea children’s table and chairs, a yoga DVD, Sesame Street DVDs, red Baby Gap sweats, a dustbuster, a radio alarm clock, a laptop sleeve, a pasta maker, kids books, a collection of little wooden dress-up dolls, and more–and that’s before inviting my friends to join. [click to continue...]

The sharing economy and me

You can rent this penthouse in Rio for $258/night on AirBnB

You hear a lot these days about the sharing economy and collaborative consumption, especially if you spend time in northern California. I spent last week in San Francisco, where people told me about AirBnB, which allows people to share their homes or apartments with visitors, RelayRides,  Share My Ride and getaround, which allow people to rent their cars for a few hours or days, and ThredUp, where parents buy, sell and share children’s clothes, toys and books. Meantime, Prosper.com and Lending Club connect people who want to lend money with those who want to borrow. With peer-to-peer lending, who needs Citi or Bank of America?

Last year, Fast Company published a thoughtful and well-reported overview of the sharing economy by Danielle Sacks under the headline: “Thanks to the social web, you can now share anything with anyone anywhere in the world. Is this the end of hyperconsumption?” More than 3 million people from 235 countries have “couch-surfed,” she reported, and more than 2.2 million bike-sharing trips are taken each month.

Many sharing websites, like Freecycle and Couch Surfing, are nonprofits. Seattle and Berkeley have tool libraries, where people can borrow a lawn mower, power saw or drill. But other sharing ventures are business. Some analysts expect the sharing economy to generate real money, Fast Company reported:

Gartner Group researchers estimate that the peer-to-peer financial-lending market will reach $5 billion by 2013. Frost & Sullivan projects that car-sharing revenues in North America alone will hit $3.3 billion by 2016.

I’ve always liked the idea of sharing–hey, I paid attention back in kindergarten–because of its obvious environmental benefits: The more we share, the less stuff we need to own. But I’ve been skeptical of the claim that the sharing economy would end–or even slow down–hyperconsumption. My week in San Francisco made me less of a skeptic. This idea just might spread. [click to continue...]