Analysis

Canada's sharing economy is growing — but should we really call it 'sharing'?

Statistics Canada's recent release tells of a new sector of the Canadian economy that's growing fast: the "sharing economy." But according to some public policy experts, government agencies that use the term risk warping public discourse about the true impact of companies that rely on transient, on-demand labour.

Statistics Canada uses a disputed term to describe an economic trend

Airbnb, which lets homeowners rent rooms or homes on a short-term basis, is frequently referred to as part of 'the sharing economy' — but some critics say there's no sharing involved. (John Locher/Associated Press)

The headline from Statistics Canada's recent release describes a new sector of the Canadian economy that's growing fast: 2.7 million Canadian adults "participated in the sharing economy" between November 2015 and October 2016, spending $1.31 billion in the process.

The national statistics agency asked Canadians about how they use four services that are frequently cited as examples of the supposedly new "sharing economy": ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, and short-term home rental services Airbnb and Flipkey.

But some public policy experts say when government agencies like Statistics Canada use the term "sharing economy" they risk warping public discourse about the impact of companies like Uber and Airbnb. Those companies rely on digital tools to deliver on-demand services like cheap rides (made possible, critics say, by low wages) or to book low-cost vacation lodgings (which detractors say distort local real estate markets.)

"I think words do matter," said Sunil Johal, policy director at the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto.

"So if the government is using a term like 'the sharing economy,' I think that lends an imprimatur of legitimacy to the term and almost endorses the business practices of those operating in that space."

"Every time anyone in a position of authority uses the terminology 'sharing economy' without including a qualifier about that terminology, what you're really doing is reinforcing that publicly coined term," said Trish Hennessy, director of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, who added that such reinforcement benefits the public relations efforts of companies like Uber and Airbnb.

A feel-good term

Indeed, some research suggests that the term "sharing economy" brings altruism to mind. A study released in 2016 by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. found that just 27 per cent of respondents had heard of the expression (more than the 11 per cent of respondents who were familiar with "gig economy," a different term used to describe the same economic phenomenon).

Among the population who had heard of the sharing economy, a plurality of 40 per cent described it in ways that emphasized sharing, mutual help, or charity.

"Nobody is opposed to sharing," said Sunil Johal of the Mowat Centre. "It's something we learn about in kindergarten, that sharing is caring."

Even if critics say major players in the "sharing economy" aren't actually sharing anything, the fact remains that the term has gained traction — doubtless aided by news media looking for pithy, headline-friendly ways to present the concept.

As a result, even people who don't like the term find themselves using it, like Hennessy, who thinks the term "on-demand service economy" is more accurate. A telephone survey asking Canadians about the "on-demand service economy" would likely confuse participants, said Hennessy, but a survey on "the sharing economy" would get responses.

Go with what people know

That public recognition is exactly why Statistics Canada's release refers to "the sharing economy," according to Myriam Hazel, a senior analyst with the agency.

Statistics Canada "is aware that the term sharing economy is often criticized and may not reflect the types of transactions that we are interested in measuring," wrote Hazel in an email to CBC News.

"However, because the term sharing economy is so widely understood to represent activities of digital platforms, it was used in the analysis."

Uber and other on-demand digital services are happy to brand themselves as part of 'the sharing economy,' but some public policy experts say governments should be wary of using that term. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Statistics Canada's research didn't explicitly ask respondents about participation in "the sharing economy." Instead, it asked how they used "ride services such as Uber, Lyft, etc." or "private accommodation services such as Airbnb, Flipkey, etc." The results of the research, however, were presented as describing "the sharing economy in Canada."

Statistics Canada isn't the only branch of government to use the term. Various federal, provincial, and local governments have all referred to "the sharing economy" and government bodies in other countries have done the same. But governments that use the expression uncritically are taking a risk, according to one expert.

Why Uber and Airbnb call it 'sharing'

"The way we see it, the sharing economy is a system based on sharing underused assets or services, directly from individuals to other individuals," Airbnb spokeswoman Alex Dagg told CBC News in an email.

A spokesperson for Uber Canada said in an email that the company "supports the new sharing economy, where people make use of their personal assets as a source of additional income."

Dean Baker, co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., said Uber and Airbnb rely on the "sharing economy" moniker to support the notion that their business models are fundamentally new and shouldn't be constrained by existing regulations governing the transportation and the hospitality industries. 

​"People refer to official documents as authoritative sources, and in effect this is giving the seal of approval to this idea of a sharing economy, again supporting this idea that they're qualitatively new and different," said Baker.

Sunil Johal of the Mowat Centre thinks Canadian government agencies might want to reconsider their use of the term in favour of more descriptive phrases like "the digital economy" or "the peer-to-peer economy."

​"It's a longer-term, quiet discourse issue … and it might already be too late, but if we don't pay attention to it now, once the train's left the station it's really hard to change what people call something," he said.

About the Author

Solomon Israel

Solomon Israel is a producer and writer for CBC News, based in Toronto. He's been on the business news beat since 2011, with stints covering technology, world, and local news. More recently, Solomon has been covering issues related to marijuana legalization. He can be reached at solomon.israel@cbc.ca, or on Twitter: @sol_israel.

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