Collaborative Consumption: In Defense of the Small

Image: Peter Hershey on Unsplash

Monday 9th July, 2018

Dr Pia Rowe

Collaborative consumption has become a buzzword in recent years, with academics and journalists alike noting the proliferation of activities falling under this broad banner. However, all too often the focus is on the market forces, and the underlying economic values of the collaborative consumption movement, at the cost of both undermining, or worse, completely ignoring the more varied forms of the concept. 

On one hand, this is hardly surprising. The global giants we’ve come to associate with the concept of collaborative consumption not only have a significant impact on the economy, but also pose substantial risks to the society as a whole by eroding work standards, and extending free market practices into previously regulated areas of lives.

And yet, as I argue in my recent article, this is only part of the story. The criticisms directed at the marketplace aspects of the practice are naturally warranted and should be subjected to a thorough investigation. However, such a narrow focus ends up downplaying the diversity of the movement, resulting in lopsided narratives lacking the nuances, which the movement exhibits. The fact that the term ‘sharing economy’ is often used interchangeably with ‘collaborative consumption’ is telling.

My research on an Australian grassroots group, MamaBake, focusing on the social aspects of the practice revealed dimensions previously either missing or glossed over in many of the discussions. The core function of the group is to bring mothers together to cook big batch meals which are then shared amongst the participants, thus liberating them from household chores, and allowing them free time to focus on things they find more enjoyable.

Emerging practices such as that of MamaBake’s underscore the actual collaborative aspect, rather than the more commonly thought of profit-driven consumption model. It is characterized by values-driven goals – increasing the wellbeing of mothers – but provides very little tangible benefits for the founder of the movement. As such, the currency exchanged goes beyond products (the cooked meals) and services (the cooking itself), and adds an intangible dimension the process – the concept of free time.

Two other key elements ought to be highlighted. Firstly, the concept of trust is central to many of the sharing practices – and as is the case with MamaBake, it becomes even more pronounced when you’re not only sharing food with other families, but often also inviting them to your home to do the cooking. Second, the activity is based on immediate reciprocity, that is, the meals are exchanged amongst the participants at the time of cooking, thus eliminating the ‘free-rider’ problem sometimes conceptualized as the ‘worst case scenario’ of the collaborative consumption movement.

However, when focusing on small grassroots groups and practices, the obvious challenge we run into straight away, is the question of impact. That the practice has the ability to increase the social capital of mothers is obvious, but are there any benefits that go beyond the individual level? Relatedly, how do we communicate its significance in an environment obsessed with metrics, with impact so often narrowly defined in terms of quantifiable outcomes?

The first consideration actually places the ‘alternative’ developments straight back into the market context. For example, we have decades of research demonstrating the value of unpaid work. There is nothing particularly new, nor revolutionary about the arguments regarding the economic benefits of domestic work, but it serves to highlight the importance of not creating false distinctions between the economic and the social, as the former is always a necessary feature of the latter.

More importantly, however, as social scientists our role should never be limited to simply “following the money”.  Paraphrasing J.K. Gibson-Graham, the discourse of difference itself contributes to the economic innovation. By sharing the challengers’ stories, no matter how small, we create new spaces for thinking, and new ways of knowing. These narratives provide a different outlook to the society as a whole, but they can never be unveiled if the focus is solely on the market arena.

As a final note, we have to exercise caution and not romanticize the small, and the social. My research found that even intangible, non-monetary currencies such as the shared norms of reciprocity used by MamaBake, can be stigmatizing under certain circumstances. This underscores the need to better understand the social practices to develop a full picture of the concept. The only way we can subject these new and emerging practices under the same scrutiny as afforded to the market forms, is to give them the prominence they deserve in the first place. 

Dr Pia Rowe is a Research Associate at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra, and the Editor of a gender equality blog, BroadAgenda. Her research interests include inclusive notions of politics and feminism, in particular issues normally considered as social and non-political. 

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