Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Consumer Society"
An exchange on the viewpoint The Decline and Fall of Consumer Society?

Julian Agyeman

Although Maurie Cohen alludes to technological trends at times, I think we should further explore the role technology has played in challenging the consumerist paradigm by facilitating the rise of the peer-to-peer sharing economy and changing views about ownership. We must also look at its limitations.

The web first enabled free sharing both of information, through sites like Wikipedia and Facebook, and of digital media, through sites like Napster and YouTube, and now Spotify and a host of other mainstream legal music sharing services. Now, new technology is also facilitating the sharing and management of material resources. The combination of open-access web platforms for offering and booking sharing opportunities, and real-time smart systems for helping match users and allocate shared resourcessuch as in city bike sharing schemes—have transformed the potential for sharing.

Conventional second hand markets for goods have moved online in many countries with the growth of sites like eBay and Gumtree, or Descolaaí in Brazil, where consumers can sell, exchange, and buy products and services. Low transaction costs have enabled the establishment of gift-based approaches such as Freecycle, in which usable goods are simply given away online, and, more dramatically, the emergence of sharing platforms which allow for the rental of personal goods such as cars, tools, and spare bedrooms and the sale of services such as meal-sharing. And this is not just in the West. is a Chinese online service for short-term property rental.

However, we must note that despite the widespread diffusion of mobile and Internet technology, there are still many, both domestically globally, without such access. The increase in popularity of sharing systems in mainstream culture is not, however, without its complexities. Equity needs to be considered in the design of sharing programsideally with the participation of likely users. Currently, it is all too often an afterthought in formal sharing schemes such as bike and car sharing programs, where a credit card or up-front fee/deposit is typical and effectively excludes those on low incomes.

Informal sharing systems, in which those on lower incomes tend to participate, are often left out of much of the current sharing dialogue. Informal sharing describes sharing activity such as carpooling and day care systems undertaken collectively to reduce economic burdens and increase opportunity, rather than to meet any other higher environmental or personal goals. Informal sharers and sharing need to be better recognized and their practice de-stigmatized. The growth of sharing in middle-class and bourgeois bohemian groups offers some hope that sharing in general is becoming less stigmatized, but this trend seems unlikely to spread to all forms and groups without specific support. Rather than expecting sustainable consumption patterns to spread via “fashion” from the bourgeois bohemian culture to other groups, we must acknowledge that ‘Main Street America’ needs interventions that target their needs for basic services and economic stability through shared services and resources.

Julian Agyeman
Julian Agyeman is a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University and co-founder of the Black Environment Network and the journal Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability.

Cite as Julian Agyeman, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Consumer Society," Great Transition Initiative (May 2014),

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