Greening the Gig
The initial hope for the digital platform-based "sharing economy" was that it would both empower workers and reduce the broader economy's carbon footprint. Neither has happened under corporate ownership; but ample research shows that alternative cooperative models could reclaim the sector's original promise.
BOSTON – The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep socioeconomic fault lines in many countries, including poor occupational conditions for the app-based gig workers who drive, shop, deliver, clean, run errands, and, more recently, provide care work. Many gig workers have reported difficulties accessing personal protective equipment, sick pay, and medical care. Demand for ride-hails, care work, and other services has collapsed, compounding chronic problems in the sector, such as low pay, oppressive algorithm-based supervision, and arbitrary dismissal.
Contrary to expectations, the gig economy has become yet another source of unsustainable greenhouse gases. Although many early proponents assumed that new ways of organizing consumer services would reduce emissions, studies of ride-hailing show that it increases cars registered, total vehicle miles traveled, and road congestion. Airbnb claims to reduce emissions by preempting new hotel construction; but its low-cost accommodations actually induce people to travel more (the so-called Jevons Paradox), which almost certainly outweighs the purported environmental benefits.
The first decade of the “sharing economy” might lead one to reject a role for app-based earning in any “green recovery” from the current downturn. Among political progressives, the emerging consensus is that we should focus instead on returning to stable, full-time employment with regular hours and union representation. That is the labor future envisioned in the proposed Green New Deal in the United States.