The arrival of COVID-19 seemed to herald the beginning of the end. Many sharing economy companies were all too hastily given up for dead in early 2020. Not without some valid arguments: Fewer and fewer people, it was thought, would choose to share means of transport, houses, clothes, work spaces in the midst of a pandemic in which – especially at the beginning – virtually everyone and every surface seemed a potential vector of contagion. These fears turned out to be only partially justified. The reality is that the catastrophe that might have been expected never occurred.
Decline and recovery
Let’s use car sharing and car pooling as an example. The only sharp drop in Italy happened in March and April 2020, yet that was during a full countrywide lockdown where mobility in general ground to a halt.
Technical company Targa Telematics released figures showing that car sharing in March 2020 was down 50% versus the previous month. This was followed by a further 40% drop in April versus March, nearly a 70% decrease versus February. However, the really negative headlines end here, and are comparable to many other sectors struggling during those months of very strict lockdown.
Not unlike many other countries, shared mobility in Italy resumed (almost) to full capacity soon thereafter. Nicolas Brusson, CEO of BlaBlaCar, a company operating in 22 countries, believes that the economic crisis will lead to an even greater demand for low-cost car travel in the coming years. Therefore, imagining a very substantial rebound of the sharing economy.
Sharing and sustainability
Broadly speaking, if the sharing economy has endured, it is mainly because many companies possess the traits that the modern market demands. First and foremost with regard to sustainability and respect for the environment.
Advocates of the sharing economy are quick to point out that sharing is a more sustainable way of living and running a business: it allows for the production of fewer goods, an extension of the life cycle of products, recycling and reuse. This maximises the use of consumer goods, reduces the demand for production of new products and the waste of resources, and enables more efficient use of resources already in use.
The upshot is that the sharing economy turns out to be a sustainable market almost by definition.
The terms carpooling and carsharing, however, are not synonymous: the first is a private individual sharing a car with other travellers, the second is a short-term rental of the vehicle, resulting in lower CO2 emissions, optimised resources and infrastructure, and per capita cost savings.
The sharing economy, however, is not only about transport. Tourism platform Airbnb, which leads the accommodation sharing segment, commissioned a study in 2014 to demonstrate the environmental benefits of its business model.
The analysis conducted by the Cleantech Group showed that sharing stays generated less energy consumption, 63% less in the US and 78% less in Europe, than stays in hotels or hostels. It also wastes less water, 12% less in the US and 48% less in Europe. These factors have contributed to an increased awareness of environmental issues among most users.
We can say the same about fashion sharing. The fashion industry’s difficulties in reinventing itself as sustainable are well known, mired in pollutants, overproduction and a supply chain that needs updating.
A 2018 report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe indicates that the fashion industry produces 20% of global water waste. The production of one cotton T-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water, the same amount a person drinks in two and a half years. As much as 10% of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by the clothing industry and 85% of textiles are sent to landfill.
Every year, 12 million items of clothing are incinerated, whose CO2 emissions contribute to global pollution. Textile waste increased by 811% from 1960 to 2015, and it is estimated that each person in the world consumes 34 items of clothing each year, throwing away 14 kg.
Fashion sharing can therefore serve as a solution for all this. A new way of perceiving fashion is beneficial to the environment as it reduces the production volumes of the textile industry: it extends the lifespan of many products via second-hand markets and by increasing the intensity of use of clothes that were initially only used by their first owners.
Whether it is sharing a car, clothes or a physical space, the sharing economy has a business model that is stimulating the development of the circular economy by connecting the owners of products with individuals or organisations interested in using them.
From this perspective, the sharing economy is an environmental, social and economic opportunity. It is also an important step towards the idea of a sustainable city in which we would and should live. The pandemic has made this need even more evident.