This article by Koen Frenken and Juliet Schor takes an economic-historic perspective to pin down a definition of the sharing economy, and synthesises the major debates and narratives surrounding its economic, social and environmental impacts.

Following discussion of key definitional issues, the authors define the sharing economy as “consumers granting each other temporary access to under-utilised physical assets (‘idle capacity’), possibly for money.” The notion of sharing of idle capacity is central to the definition of sharing economy, the authors argue, because it distinguishes the practice of sharing of goods from the practice of personal service provision.

Frenken and Schor then tackle impacts, starting with economic effects of sharing economy platforms. They note the “indisputably positive” direct economic effects of millions of new transactions and growing consumer welfare, but also the increasing economic inequality driven by provider-side dynamics. On environmental impacts, the authors point to a dearth of evidence to support claims of decreasing emissions or demand for new goods.  Finally, with respect to social impacts, the study asks whether benefits will continue to accrue as sharing platforms become less novel and more people participate for economic reasons rather than social ones.

The authors conclude that precise impacts of the sharing economy are likely to remain unclear until user data currently held by platforms is made more broadly available. They put forward a series of research questions regarding governance, impacts and scalability.