This is the first article published by partners of the PIonniers du COllaboratif (PICO) project [PIoneers of the COllaborative], coordinated by IDDRI, which studies the social and environmental impacts of collaborative consumption practices on material goods and the scope for public policymakers to harness these practices for more sustainable development.
COLLABORATIVE CONSUMPTION: AN EMERGING CONCEPT WITH GREAT POTENTIAL FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Airbnb, blablacar, eBay… these platforms that are currently transforming the economy are just the tip of a giant iceberg called “collaborative consumption”. The concept still lacks a clear definition but is shaped by the reflections of a number of actors, ranging from popular theorists, community activists and web entrepreneurs. Numerous promises are thus associated with the concept: it has been variously argued that sharing practices could be the solution to the development model crisis or the environmental crisis, and that they could also represent a means to rebuild social ties and forms of collective solidarity.
GOING BACK TO ITS THEORETICAL FOUNDATIONS
An examination of the theoretical foundations of collaborative consumption can help to understand and analyze the promises that it holds. Here we identify and discuss three key theoretical fields that have been mobilized by promoters of the collaborative economy. The free software and open-source information movements have led to a conceptualization of the collaborative economy as underlining and promoting the movement from a passive to an active consumer (“consum’actor”), represented by a universal and distributed access to knowledge, skills and material resources. Secondly, the economy of functionality (or economy of use) is at the heart of collaborative consumption as it prioritizes access and use over ownership, which holds great promise for stakeholders in the environmental space. Lastly, the economy of reciprocity represent another approach, which reintroduces the notion of symbolic exchange based on mutual sharing (giving, receiving, giving back) as a departure from the hegemony of commercial exchange.
MAINTAINING A CRITICAL ATTITUDE TOWARDS ITS PROMISES REMAINS NECESSARY
The range of theoretical approaches outlined here not only explains the variety of definitions proposed for the collaborative economy but also the diversity of promises that it holds for various actors. While it is important to consider these potentials seriously, they also often justifiably provoke a range of possible reservations. Stakeholders who wish to mobilize the collaborative economy to fulfill its promises and public policymakers who want to promote these practices must adopt a critical stance before taking any action. The theoretical fields identified here can be mobilized to this end.