Sharing, materialism, and design for sustainability

Authored by: Russell Belk

Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Product Design

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138910171
eBook ISBN: 9781315693309
Adobe ISBN:


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Sharing can reduce resource use, waste, congestion, pollution and senseless accumulation of possessions. We should therefore be happy about the recent hoopla celebrating ‘the sharing economy.’ With the help of the Internet and digital devices there has been an explosion of successful sharing ventures like Uber, Airbnb and Zipcar. But we must also realize that much of this economy isn’t about sharing at all, but rather about selling access through short-term rental rather than ownership. There may still be gains for the environment, but sometimes the goal of the organization is more ‘sharewashing’ rather than improving the state of the world. That is, sharing provides a pro-social label for what may be exploitative aims. Materialism plays a big role in inhibiting sharing, in encouraging consumer lifestyles with dubious sustainability and in incentivizing business to co-opt and appropriate sharing initiatives in order to profit. The design of products and services also plays a role in encouraging and facilitating sharing. This chapter examines positive and negative takes on sharing and materialism and considers their role in fostering greater sustainability. In spite of counterarguments, the conclusion reached is that sharing may not only promote greater sustainability, it may also inhibit materialism.

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