This article is part of a series on cutting edge research that has the potential to create positive social impact. While the research is inherently specific, we believe that the insights gleaned from each piece in this series are relevant to behavioral science practitioners in many different fields. As a socially conscious applied research firm, we are always looking for ways to translate science into impact. If you would like to chat with us about a potential collaboration, feel free to contact us.
Shared ownership agreements, which describe when consumers give others temporary access to their physical possessions, have recently increased in popularity.
But is sharing eco-friendly?
The idea goes that sharing allows consumers to use products without paying the full amount, thereby allowing consumers to access a wider range of products while simultaneously saving them money. Supposedly, sharing is more sustainable as well: If fewer people need to buy physical goods in order to derive some specific level of use from them, fewer resources need to be consumed to create these products, all else equal.
This view may not necessarily be as true as we might think according to research by Laura Straeter and Jessica Exton, two behavioral scientists at ING, a Dutch bank. This research study addresses the downsides of sharing-based ownership agreements from the perspective of sustainability, a key area of interest for The Decision Lab.
We reached out to Laura and Jessica to discuss their work on this study as well as the future direction of research involving applied behavioral science and sustainability.
To read more about the study, check out the Behavioural Economics Guide (page 100).
How would you describe the focus of your research?
Sharing is getting easier and more popular, particularly with online tools (Belk, 2014). Getting around using shared cars and bikes, staying in others’ homes while on holiday, and accessing tools and equipment that others own in your neighborhood is now quite normal.
Some people share because it’s easy, cheap, local, or fun. Research suggests that many also share because it is considered more sustainable than individual consumption (Böckner & Meelen, 2017; Hamari et al., 2015). Buying less should mean producing less, consuming fewer input resources, and reducing our impact on the planet (Bani & Blom, 2020). This sounds attractive to many people.
But, is sharing actually eco-friendly? Do we consume less when we share? We wanted to find out.
How would you explain your research question?
We wanted to understand whether owners treat items that they share differently to items that they use by themselves. Particularly, we wanted to know if sharing an item leads people to throw that item away or replace it faster than if they hadn’t shared it. This would provide insight into the product life cycle of shared items compared to non-shared items.
What did you think you’d find, and why?
Research has shown that a product that has been in contact with other consumers can sometimes be viewed as contaminated, even when it has objectively been unharmed (Argo et al., 2006). Feelings of disgust can consequently arise (Rozin et al., 1986; Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Argo et al, 2006).
We expected that decisions regarding shared possessions would be influenced by the owner’s perception of how contaminated a product was and that their decision regarding when to throw the item away or replace it would be affected by sharing. We anticipated that they would throw away or replace shared items earlier because they would consider them more contaminated.