Sharing – leasing, a good idea? On value and quality

Many solutions are ‘invented’, to improve our resource consumption patterns, and reduce climate change. And we are very creative. One of the solutions is the ‘Sharing economy’. But does this have a real effect, is what I wonder? I came across a few publications lately, which reduce my optimism in this area. The most discussed sharing-idea is about cars. Does this solve anything? The car is shared, but not our way of transport , its not public transport. In fact, we are still driving private cars, whether we share them or not. The argument that this reduces the amount of cars , is not completely just: Yes, you need less cars, at the same time. The occupation ratio of cars however increases, and so does wear and tear: if the car’s use is doubled, life time is halved. So in the end we have to produce the same amount of cars over time. What can be an advantage is that we need less parking space. There are less cars needed at the same time, which will drive most of the time, and thus will not occupy parking space. A disadvantage is however that there will be more parking space available in cities, which attracts more cars, as research showed. As far as I can see it, a real advantage could come from less short drives by car when people for instance will use a bicycle. But how much will that benefit the environment? Anyway, its not the egg of Columbus.

Another arguing I found in a recent article by “ the correspondent” ( A dutch research journalism newspaper): The use of apps, to share stuff. Like ‘mywheels’ , ( or even Uber but with driver) for sharing cars, are in fact not a service to people, but just another business model: A model that does not add value* to society, but a model that pulls out money from society without owing anything . They only exploit us, civilians, owners of cars. The app Airbnb works the same: It owns nothing, only facilitates and earns money from us. Of course, it is handy, and provides cheaper hotel options. Only if using Airbnb would result in building less hotel facilities, it could have some effect. However , in fact it makes traveling and cheap hotel easier accessible, and increases as such environmental pressure. ( even more I think)

The idea that, via these sharing facilitating apps, money is withdrawn from society, which could be a environmental profit, is false : The money has been replaced. Not destroyed of course. Somewhere in the chain it will be spent on goods, and reduce “energy and materials value” .

The sharing person, thinks he has positively contributed to reduce environmental pressure, but the problem has just moved. Even if sharing would be free of payments, there is money saved that will be spent elsewhere on ‘ value’, with a loss in ‘value’, or better: loss in  quality in terms of energy and materials.


Well, could leasing give some relief in environmental pressure? Some 9 years ago I got involved in developing innovative solutions for a “ Future district”, one with low or 0-impact. And since we also wanted to change infrastructure and public lighting, we went to Philips and asked to supply us with light. Not bulbs, but light. How, would not be our concern, we would just pay for light. And not only that, they had to include to provide their own energy, since our district should be self supplying in energy. After some discussions and emails, they withdraw from the project, it was too far off from their business model.

At the time I argued that it should not be about demand for products, but about demand for functionalities, or services . What I did not realize is that this does not necessarily imply that the product should be owned by someone else: Someone not being the owner of the functionality ie the product that provides that functionality, will also act less responsible. As can be seen by lease car drivers.

What could have been the advantage to split ownership and service ? If nothing changes in the demand for light, the same amount of light would have to be delivered. The difference could have been in the fact that someone else controls the light, and has an interest in the well functioning of the products, and for instance the longevity, or the recycling of the products. But companies don’t like risks, so they will replace the lamps sooner and more often. I myself can wait until a lamp is broken, and even live for some time with a broken lamp. But not a company , most likely they will replace all lamps at certain time intervals whether broken or not. And even when recycled, thats not smart. Another related point I came across past years is that flexibility in systems is very important. Which can be seen internationally and on large scales: As with electricity blackouts, or even banking crises ( too big to fail) . But also in smaller scales: It turns out low income people in the Netherlands use less heating energy as predicted by their calculated performance according type and construction. It happens that with a individual heating and controlling situation, people can influence their costs, and will reduce heating area or temperature levels in times of low income. If for instance they are part of a large system and service contract, they are stuck with fixed costs. And naturally, the energy demands will be higher in total as well. And such things will also apply to lights or other services that are contracted. In general It seems better to have the responsibility remain at the end user of the service. It makes systems less vulnerable, more self-sufficient or even anti-fragile [1], it seems. The price of products and energy of course should in future be adapted to include all costs, including external costs.

There are of course some advantages to create with sharing , for instance when sharing stuff is not directly related to wear and tear or longevity of the product. Like a long ladder that is shared in the neighborhood. It lasts a life time, even when shared among neighbors. And that saves a lot of aluminium.

When it comes to the built environment, its ‘space management’ that can give advantages, from energy and resource point of view. The longevity of a house or apartment is hardly influenced by an extra person living there. And sharing an empty space for living ( not the holiday part as with Airbnb) can give serious advantages. A nice example of space management is an idea I worked on for a eco-district in the Netherlands: It was very popular and had many visitors, which is why the inhabitants thought of building a hotel-conference center. Ecological of course. But even then, it would be a new building which anyhow would create environmental impact. I found that there were many small companies around which had meeting rooms from 50-200 people, which are only partially used, and empty in weekends. With some puzzling and cooperation it would be possible to hold a conference with parallel sessions in these rooms, with an extra advantage that participants would get some fresh air now and then when walking from one room to another. Besides, the house owners in the neighborhood, nearly all had an empty guest room. If everyone would make that available, ( there was a great environmental concern among inhabitants) , then we could organize a hotel function as well. A local Airbnb so to say. In other words: A hotel conference center, without any construction at all. How sustainable can you be. The proposal did not make it , but it shows how space sharing management can give significant advantages , avoiding new construction.

The superlative example of this, I read in a book about the beginning of coal mining in the south of The Netherlands: due to lack of living space coal miners from all over Europe rented rooms with local people. And even sometime the house owner rented the rooms twice a day, since the coal miners worked in shift service: one could sleep while the other worked. Space plus time management combined!

This by the way does not only count for static space, also mobile space can profit this way: Car sharing might not be that effective but car-pooling can: an extra passenger wont harm the car , and is much more effective, as when that passenger had driven a shared car. The social value increased, without reducing the environmental quality.

All this requires not new products, but intelligent and extensive organization. Which is a interesting conclusion: We are focused to organize things things simple and fast ( value) and use a lot of technology ( creating quality losses). While many solutions that as well create value, and limit quality loss require a lot of puzzling and organization. Not just planning and building a next house, but reorganizing space. Which is a matter of labor, which is not strange, since that is putting in one of the most renewable energy resources we have… [2]

Ultimately its about the quality that is consumed, in terms of energy and resources, over time.

And many new sharing or leasing models shift the burden, but don’t decrease that. Its new business models, selling the same. The clue in sharing and leasing is the question, does it provide value without reducing or avoid consuming quality, in terms of energy and materials?



* value: We have to be careful using the term Value: What we usually value, is a value for ourselves, as a service or as a profit in money. But in fact what you do at the same time is de-valuing : since for most services value of resources is lost. Its better to speak of adding a service value but losing environmental quality.

[1] Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Random house, ISBN13: 9781400067824

[2] Labor, a lost renewable energy source ,

Author: ronald rovers