Papers in Brief (XX) Plewnia & Guenther (2018) Mapping the sharing economy for sustainability research

[Note: This is the 20th post in our “Papers in Brief” series. This series offers a special service as it explains the core ideas of chosen research papers in a nutshell.]

Papers in Brief (XX) by Frederik Plewnia and Edeltraud Guenther

Plewnia, F., and Guenther, E. (2018), “Mapping the sharing economy for sustainability research”, Management Decision, Vol. 56 No. 4, pp. 1-15.

Background and relevance

The sharing economy is considered an upcoming socio-economic trend of enormous importance which has the potential to contribute to sustainable development by providing individual well-being, building social capital, and, at the same time, alleviating environmental problems (Botsman and Rogers, 2010; Heinrichs, 2013). However, empirical research is still scarce and paints a mixed picture for threats and opportunities of the sharing economy for sustainable development. Specifically, the exponential growth of companies like Uber or Airbnb has raised a lot of criticism regarding avoided legislation, induced environmental rebound effects, or lack of social relationships as well as discrimination in transactions (Martin, 2016).

A main reason for seemingly conflicting findings and inconsistent viewpoints on the sharing economy is the lack of a clear conceptual understanding of the phenomenon. Not only do various scientific definitions compete with media reports and self-definition of companies, but  the term “sharing” itself also carries various meanings ranging from economic to social, as well as communicational sharing (John, 2012).

To structure ongoing discussions and guide sustainability research, the purpose of this paper is to develop a comprehensive framework which helps to understand similarities and differences of business models associated with the sharing economy. The framework shall guide future research and policy intervention but can also be used by practitioners to find new business models in the wide field of the sharing economy.

Research method

The developed typology of sharing economy activities was elaborated based on existent literature on the sharing economy. First, a systematic database search on the terms “sharing economy”, “share economy”, “collaborative consumption”, “collaborative economy”, “peer economy”, and “access economy” was conducted to identify relevant scientific literature. Additionally, snowballing of referenced documents and an explorative web search were used to add further articles and gray literature to the sample and account for the dynamic development of the concept. Second, MAXQDA was used to analyze the documents for systematizations of the sharing economy or related terms. Finally, the found systematizations were analyzed for their conceptual intersections and integrated into one comprehensive typology of sharing activities. The resulting framework covers categorizations from 39 documents, including peer-reviewed articles, reports, websites, and master theses.


The developed typology of the sharing economy (Figure 1) contains four main dimensions. The dimension shared good or service differentiates business model based on what is being shared and ranges from tangible to intangible goods. It comprises material, redistributed products, product service systems (PSS), space, money, workforce, knowledge and education, as well as information and data. The dimension market structure asks for the ownership of the shared resource or who is sharing with whom. It distinguishes business-to-consumer (B2C), consumer-to-consumer (C2C), consumer-to-business (C2B), business-to-business (B2B), and government-to-consumer (G2C) models of sharing. The market orientation differentiates between for-profit and non-profit transactions and spans the spectrum between economic and social sharing activities. Finally, the industry sector identifies sharing activities according to their industry field.

Figure 1_Typology of sharing economy activities

Figure 1. Typology of sharing economy activities

The aim of this framework is not to deliver a clear-cut definition of what should be considered part of the sharing economy or not, but delineates different forms of sharing activities along the presented dimensions. Consequently, it includes social (non-profit), economic (for-profit), and communicational (sharing knowledge, information, or data) interpretations of the term “sharing”. Instead of drawing conclusions on the sharing economy as a homogenous phenomenon, sustainability research should distinguish the potential and impact of sharing activities along their differences and similarities.

Additionally, the framework can be used by entrepreneurs and managers looking for opportunities to start a new business, expand their range of action, or transition their company in new directions. In this sense, various forms of sharing can be applied not only to offer new value propositions to the customer, e.g. by offering short-term rental or platform services, but also to innovate value creation processes within the company, e.g. on a B2B or C2B level.


Botsman, R. and Rogers, R. (2010), What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, HarperCollins, New York.

Heinrichs, H. (2013), “Sharing Economy: A Potential New Pathway to Sustainability”, GAIA  – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, Vol. 22 No. 4, pp. 228–231.

John, N.A. (2012), “Sharing and Web 2.0: The emergence of a keyword”, New Media & Society, No. 15, pp. 167–182.

Martin, C.J. (2016), “The sharing economy: A pathway to sustainability or a nightmarish form of neoliberal capitalism?”, Ecological Economics, Vol. 121, pp. 149–159.




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