Whether coming at it from a social justice perspective, an environmental angle, or in wanting to support local resilience and innovation, there is a loud discussion occurring about how to best go about consuming and using the goods and services that we do. Two approaches come to mind: “green consumerism” and “sharing economies”, both of which have been touted as being better for people and the planet.
In their own ways, each can contribute to a healthier economy, though it’s important to acknowledge the misconceptions and gaps that accompany each one. The Toronto Tool Library and Sharing Depot are often asked about the difference, and under which umbrella we consider ourselves. While we don’t disagree with making conscious decisions in what we do buy, what we are really looking to support is the vibrant movement towards buying less, and better sharing the wealth and resources that we already have.
Having this green consumption vs. sharing economy debate ought to start by clarifying some terms. For the purpose of this article, we look to the good ol’ Oxford Dictionary to define green consumerism as the “practice of purchasing products which are regarded as environmentally responsible”. We might expand this to also acknowledge just how intricate this process actually is, and how the process in itself is largely dependent on the amount of information made publicly available about a company’s sourcing, production and labour practices.
You Can’t Have Your Green Cake and Eat It Too
Green consumerism can be a powerful tool for market change. For one thing, it indicates to corporations, producers and vendors that there is a demand for “ethical” products and services. That demand is rising, particularly amongst Millennials. In a way, green consumerism plays a small role in challenging neoliberal economic assumptions by proving that homo economicus is driven by much more than simply the best price. Consumers are shaped by a little thing called “values” or “ethics”, the recognition of which injects a glimpse of individual choice and, well, humanity into the equation.
However, green consumerism is not without its controversies and this begins in some of its contradictions. Awareness of the ethical consumer as distinct from the price-driven consumer has been capitalized on through marketing and brand loyalty. While Chevron’s infamous 1980s “People Do” commercial stands out as the exaggerated epitome of greenwash marketing, there are more subtle forms, including eco-labeling which has created a crisis in consumer trust. With so many labels and buzzwords out there, it’s tough for a consumer to know what has really been “ethically” produced, let alone recognize that it is not a one size fits all process – what is designated organic does not necessarily mean it was farmed with ecological practices, produced with fair labour, or traveled fewer food miles.
Furthermore, green consumerism does not disrupt the consumption process in any real way – we are still using our earth’s raw resources to design, manufacture, package, transport and use products. We still prioritize the monetary exchange of goods for ownership, often for single household possession. This “have your cake and eat it too” philosophy can actually be quite dangerous if no legitimate paradigm shift towards an ecologically minded society is occurring simultaneously.
What can be downright damaging is that green consumption practices are not an accessible option for all consumers to participate in, even if they support its overall cause. Green products are differentiated as a niche market that supplies a value-added product – and this comes with a premium price tag. Ethical sourcing, label certifications, livable wages, etc. do not come cheaply, and this increased price limits the type of consumer who can afford to support it. This fuels the Portlandia perception of the wealthy yuppie consumer whose financial privilege helps to maintain that stereotype, while feeding demand to keep prices high.
The consumer who does not have the financial security to pay those premium prices is shamed for shopping at Walmart to cover the needs of their families. This enables those with wealth and class privilege to define what is “responsible consumerism”, therefore stigmatizing those who do not (read: can not) participate in that definition, veiling the larger structural issues of environmental and social justice in the process.
Is the Answer in Sharing the Cake?
The “sharing economy” approach attempts to break down that barrier by creating spaces whereby shared ownership enables access to something otherwise unattainable due to space, price, etc. In its best form, this economic ideology celebrates community building and reduced consumption: an alternative pathway to build more sustainable, equitable and connected societies.
However, as researchers like Juliet Schor point out, the “sharing economy” comes with its own set of complexities and contradictions, especially as it has exploded as a popular buzzword encompassing everything from tool libraries to AirBnB. There is a long list of complaints, including exploited labour, unproven environmental benefits, unequal access, unregulated behaviour, anti-competitive behaviour, increased precarity, etc. – authors like economist Dean Baker, writer Anthony Kalamar and journalist Tom Slee raise valid points worth dissecting.
Perhaps most alarming is Juliet Schor’s warning of the danger of fetishizing “sharing” as a post-modern classist and racialized phenomenon, recognizing the deep historical roots of sharing as a need for low-income communities: “The discourse of novelty employs a false universalism that can be alienating to people who have maintained non-digital sharing practices in their daily lives.”
How Can We Do Better?
So where do the Toronto Tool Library and Sharing Depot fit into all of this? We definitely fall under the “sharing economy” umbrella over “green consumerism”. We don’t want to simply demand “greener” production; we want to flip the entire concept of ownership and consumption on its head. That being said, the criticisms of “sharing economies” are a necessary soundboard for us to reflect on our work. They mainly apply to larger companies like AirBnB and Uber that have coopted the terminology of sharing economies without practicing its values. In our opinion, these companies do not represent the spirit of the “sharing” economy in the way that we understand it – a shared usership model that redefines the concepts of possession and ownership, and that celebrates trust, community, and our earth’s resources.
We think the Toronto Tool Library and the Sharing Depot do this – but we also think that we can better answer Janelle Orsi’s question, “How are we going to harness the sharing economy to spread the wealth?” Technically, we operate under a Business-to-Peer structure, though Schor categorizes tool libraries as following more of a G2P model (Government to Peer) – the G2P approach is more community and accessibility focused than it is profit-oriented (or at least, that’s the hope).
It’s true that we charge a membership fee in order to pay our incredible staff, to cover Toronto rent, and to handle repairs, renovations, etc. Though minimal, we ought to reflect on how this monetization is impacting our potential member base – who is being excluded from the project, and what can we be doing better as an organization to better walk our walk? Luckily, we are able to provide a sliding payment scale to members, and additional funding can help us achieve our long-term dream of nixing the membership fee altogether.
Learning from the missing links in green consumerism and in large-scale sharing operations can help us do this, but ultimately, our most important sense of direction will always be grounded within the communities in which we work. It is vital to us that we did not emerge from some post-economic crisis Silicon Valley trend but that we honour and operate under the legacy of sharing from its most basic of roots – it’s not about you or I, it’s about us.
Molly Fremes is a proud new board member of IRBE (the nonprofit behind the Toronto Tool Library). A hopeless nerd, she hopes to share her passion of social economies and community-building through her research, blog posts, and volunteering at The Toronto Tool Library. She is a Master’s student at York University studying alternative economic models in food systems. She is known for terrible puns and always mixing up her idioms. Check out her profile to get in touch.