The term collaborative consumption often conjures images of the large multinational companies that have shaken up the service industry in recent years – for good or ill. Instead of taxis, we catch Uber. When we travel, we find accommodation through Airbnb, all done with a few taps on our smartphones. While on the surface making promises of a free, revolutionised marketplace, in reality, the business models behind such ventures mimic the predatory neoliberal model, extending free market practices into previously regulated areas of our lives.
Much of the criticism of the more well known forms of collaborative consumption is directed at their negative impacts in the form of decreased job security, risks to consumer safety, and the erosion of the tax base just to name a few. The actual practice of collaborative consumption, as I argue in my recent research, is far more complex. There are many forms of collaborative consumption that extend beyond the market orientation, which have not received adequate attention to date. The underlying premise of these alternative groups is very different from the more commonly known forms of the practice. Instead of creating value for shareholders, the focus here is often on the common good, and the benefits to the individual participants. But what does it all have to do with mothers and domestic labor?
The actual practice of collaborative consumption is far more complex.
Family, it has been argued, has become the ultimate consumption unit, where the unpaid domestic labor of women is based on the idea that purchasing various household gadgets will make housework seemingly easier. These in turn contribute to the individualistic and gendered notions of domestic labour, as the need for communal services such as Laundromats diminishes when the individual ownership of household goods such as washing machines increases. What’s more, the investments made in the technologies that help run the domestic life, combined with the fact that many of these were created with the expectation that people using them would be full-time housewives, mean that technologies will be slow to evolve to make life actually easier for the working life and mother.
MamaBake, one of the pioneers of collaborative consumption in Australia, was created to liberate mothers from some of their household chores through group, big batch cooking sessions. Given the fact that housework in Australia continues to be highly gendered, the significance of such an aim should not be underestimated. The group underscores the actual collaborative aspect, rather than the often profit-driven consumption model. While the big batch cooking and sharing of the meals provides many benefits for the mothers burdened with the domestic work, there are very few tangible rewards for the founder of the movement.
However, we have to be careful not to create a false division between the economic models and the social forms of the practice, as the first is always a necessary feature of the society, and the latter cannot take place in a vacuum isolated from the first. Traditionally, home has been conceptualised as an idealised space, separate from the market practices of the outside world. The sacred feelings associated with domesticity maintain this artificial separation of the private realm from the public sphere. While housework differs from the market in that it is unpaid labour, performed in isolated workplaces, and by unspecialised workers, there is no denying that home is always firmly embedded within the market movements.
Traditionally, home has been conceptualised as an idealised space, separate from the market practices of the outside world.
Alternative economies often face credibility issues, and many doubt their ability to drive societal change even though the significance of non-market transactions and unpaid household work to economic activity has been demonstrated in much of the feminist analysis over the decades. As such, it has been argued that the discourse of difference itself contributes to an economic innovation.
While it is clear that collaborative consumption will always have to operate within the boundaries set by the broader structural context of neoliberalism, the fact that new social practices based on soft, communal values have also emerged provides a positive general outlook to society as a whole. When we understand the diversity of the collaborative consumption movement, and recognise it as a dynamic practice, we will be able to imagine alternative social arrangements, which provide intangible benefits such as time and a sense of community to the participants. And sometimes these lessons are learnt in the most unexpected places – like cooking groups for mothers.
This blog post is based on a research article ‘Beyond Uber and Airbnb: The social economy of collaborative consumption‘, published in the Vol 3, issue 2, April-June 2017 issue of ‘Social Media + Society’.