What do you need to plant a tree in your garden? A spade, a hoe and shovel? No – what you actually need is a hole in the ground. It doesn’t really matter whether the shovel used has been bought or borrowed. People who borrow items instead of paying for them form part of the “Sharing Economy”: advocates of this principle lend their property to other people on a temporary basis. They offer rooms, areas and services and group together to cultivate gardens or fields. Social media is at the forefront of this sharing and exchanging movement, making it easier than ever. Younger online users are particularly interested in such sharing platforms.
It could be a classic of world literature which is now out of print, some kids clothes which have been kept in decent condition or a car for a trip to the countryside – some people only want to use these things temporarily, without having to buy them outright. Other people want to let their property for online. This may be borne of idealism, frugality or the desire to get in contact with other people, or even to simply make a little bit of money. The “Sharing Economy” – a modern umbrella term given to online exchange platforms and rental services, may well be relatively unknown (see download charts), with just 15% of the total population aware of its meaning without prompting. However, at 28%, the online population of Germany is a little better acquainted with this concept. Moreover, a further 28% of private internet users were also able to name specific sharing platforms, with 9% citing themselves as active users. These are the findings of a recent GfK Verein study conducted in September 2015 in which more than 2,000 private online users were surveyed.
In addition to these active users, a further 14% of the online population are interested in offers from companies such as Kleiderkreisel or Airbnb, while 5% are aware of such services but cannot ever imagine using them. Furthermore, one in two respondents has heard of these services but could not specify any further detail about them. Finally, around one in five internet users are totally unfamiliar with sharing platforms.
The idea behind collective consumption is nothing new, having characterized many "hippy" communes during the 1970s. While modern sharing business models may not have much in common with the eco-activism of the hippy area, which saw entire communes sharing a rickety VW Beetle and growing veg together on shared balconies, they do share one common factor. Now as back then, it is young people such as "digital natives", or young internet users, who are most familiar with the concept of the Sharing Economy and who are playing the most prominent role in structuring it. Perhaps this is because social media such as Facebook has made it easier for them to stumble upon such movements: a single click is all that is required to get involved. Or maybe it’s got more to do with the fact that they have been sharing images, music and creative ideas online for years now and are simply applying this to different areas of life.
In short: the younger the respondent, the more widespread the use of Sharing Economy platforms. A total of 17% of young people and young adults under the age of 30 have used such a platform, whereas this applies to just 2% of the 60+ age group. The number of potential users is also greatest among young people: one in five can imagine making use of sharing platforms in the future. For the 40+ age group, this figure falls to 13%. Just one in ten of respondents aged 60+ would consider using a sharing service.
Breaking down the responses by gender also throws up some noticeable divergences: while male internet users are more likely to indicate that they are familiar with the term following a brief explanation than their female counterparts, they actually have far less practical experience with the concept of Sharing Economy. In this regard, 10% of women are active users of sharing platforms, while the corresponding figure for male respondents is just 7%. Also, the number of those who categorically rule out getting involved in the Sharing Economy is also smaller for women (4%) than for men (6%). However, men do lead the way in one regard: 16% of men foresee giving online sharing platforms a trial run, whereas just 12% of women plan on this.
The media is rather cynical of the Sharing Economy. After all, internet access and owning property others may covet are prerequisites – this means the services are not really available to everybody. However, the harshest criticism is reserved for the fact that these offers are become increasingly commercial in nature and this new economic sector is able to circumvent labor market regulations, as Tilman Baumgärtel (among others) wrote in June 2014 for ‘Zeit online’ . Respondents who already have experience of the Sharing Economy are most often convinced that this form of consumption has a viable future, despite what critics may say. A majority of respondents (nearly 70%) who, following a brief explanation of the concept of the Sharing Economy, indicate that they are familiar with this, albeit without having necessarily actively participated in exchanging or renting goods, are of the view that that it represents a development which could become increasingly popular. A total of 18% of respondents believe this to be a niche market, which may have some staying power, but will always apply to just a small circle of consumers. However, approximately one in ten respondents familiar with the Shared Economy concept believe it will disappear, just as so many transient fads have done previously.
It is above all younger, female internet users who are particularly confident in the staying power of the Shared Economy: three-quarters of respondents under the age of 30 and familiar with the concept believe that sharing projects will continue to increase in importance. A total of 71% of the female respondents (male: 66%) who stated that they were acquainted with the term following an explanation subscribe to this theory. The most senior category of respondents are much more conservative in their outlook: here, 57% of those familiar with the term are confident that sharing platforms will continue to be relevant in the future, 29% regard them as a niche market and 5% believe them to be a passing fad. Small differences are apparent in the mid-age ranges too: 64% of those aware of the Shared Economy concept in the 30-39 age category believe it has a future. However, this age group contains the largest proportion of respondents (13%) who believe that all these sharing and exchanging projects are simply a short-term trend. Those familiar with the concept and aged between 40 and 59 are less skeptical: 67% believe this is a development with a real future, with just 8% of the view that the Sharing Economy with be a short-lived craze.
One of the main arguments for sharing and exchanging is the ecological benefits: sharing drills, lawnmowers and even cars with other people means they do not need to buy their own. Fans of the Sharing Economy are certain that this will conserve natural resources. Overall, German internet users are enamored with this “green” argument: 81% are of the opinion that exchange and rental platforms mean products are used more efficiently with fewer needing to be manufactured in total. People who make use of sharing platforms themselves (91%) are even more likely to subscribe to this theory. However, some still remain skeptical: 7% of those familiar with the Shared Economy believe that there is no environmental benefit. Their argument is that the Shared Economy can save people money, giving them the freedom to make other purchases. For example, if you cut costs on a DIY project, and use the money saved to buy a cheap flight to Ibiza, you haven’t done the environment any favours at all.
In this regard too, it is the youngest generations of respondents in the environmental survey who appear most optimistic: 85% of respondents between the ages of 14 and 29 familiar with the concept of the Shared Economy believe that sharing has a positive ecological effect. This value decreases slightly as the respondents get older, with 78% of the 60+ age group expressing the same view. Older respondents who are aware of the Shared Economy are most fearful (8%) that savings made from sharing platforms will simply create additional consumer incentives. Men and women familiar with sharing business models are fairly unified in their view regarding the sharing community’s ecological footprint: 80% of men and 82% of women believe that the Sharing Economy has a positive ecological effect, with just 8% and 6%, respectively, expressing a cynical view.
Jakob Strehlow, a student from Flensburg, has his own personal motivation which compelled him to found a webpage for his sharing project “Tausch-Wunder” a few years ago. Back then, he wanted to exchange a green balloon online. He completed several exchanges over the course of just one year and managed to get his hands on a car! Neither environmental nor financial factors motivated him: rather, Jakob just wanted to do something good. In this case, he wanted a bus to help with youth projects in his hometown. Although Jakob has not quite achieved this yet, his attempt is simply on hold while he completes his Abitur and undertakes a year of voluntary social work. It is possible that with the increased recognition achieved by this new form of sharing, exchanging and hiring in Germany, Jakob will now be able to successfully complete the final exchange and secure a bus for his hometown.
Data source: GfK Verein, Study "Sharing Economy" (September 2015)
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