Press release - The rise of the sharing economy

Rapid technological change has an impact on the economy and considerably alters our methods of consumption. Apart from the strong growth of e-commerce, which has led to electronic channels becoming an integral part of modern distribution chains, the last few years have seen strong emergence of digital platforms which, in substance, connect up private individuals by offering them the possibility of sharing under-used property or assets, without actually involving any transfer of ownership, and of exchanging services. In the light of this, the so-called sharing economy is the central theme this article.

This ‘new economy’ has effectively grown in importance to the point of now becoming a genuine source of potential and economic opportunity that merits more in-depth analysis. This study initially seeks to define just what this sharing economy represents, but also helps to understand how it has developed with the support of various simultaneous trends, such as technological progress, urbanisation of our societies, questions of values and eco-citizenship, as well as more financial reasons.

It also shows that the sharing economy business has expanded in a good many branches of activity, and especially in transport and accommodation. While its growth has been rapid and looks set to continue in the near future, it nevertheless seems to still only account for an extremely small share of total value added at the macroeconomic level as well as in employment.

This observation is certainly the case for Belgium, where survey data suggest that the sharing economy is gaining a foothold at a slightly slower pace than it is in neighbouring countries at the moment and, on average, in the European Union too. But even though the participation rate among Belgians in the sharing economy and the development of related activities remains very low at this stage, its prospects and growth potential nevertheless seem to be quite considerable: this new form of economy is establishing its reputation, users are relatively young and many of the people surveyed said they would be likely to get more involved, one way or another, in this sharing economy over the next few years.

This context of rapid evolution therefore raises the question of how to take these activities into account in up-to-date official statistics that are particularly useful for economic analysis and decision-making. Here, it would appear that traditional methods of data collection need to be refined, and that the use of new techniques should be considered as well, so as to better capture the full scale of the sharing economy as regards GDP as well as other variables making up the national accounts statistics, and price indices too.

The rapid expansion of the sharing economy is also a major challenge for the public authorities. It is in fact important to know to what extent the current regulatory framework needs to be adapted or its enforcement tightened up. This applies not just to taxation, for which a specific framework has recently been set up in Belgium, but also, for example, to the protection of workers and consumers involved in these new business models. Generally speaking, the competent public authorities must be able to strike an appropriate balance between two objectives. On the one hand, avoiding unfair competition so as to, preferably, subject so-called traditional firms as well as sharing-economy-related initiatives that operate in the same branch of activity to the same set of rules. On the other hand, the need to avoid slowing down the dynamism of this new form of economy by excessive regulation. In fact, the rapid growth in the number of new players in the sharing economy may, at least in some branches of activity, be an indication that “traditional” firms are facing too much regulation. On this point, the economic literature points up the potential advantage of (partial) self-regulation. These various challenges are discussed in the last part of this article.