Examining the ethics of the sharing economy: A multi-level perspective on Airbnb in London and Barcelona
Country: United Kingdom
Case study type: Airbnb and alternatives
Keywords: Airbnb, collaborative economy, digital disruption, sharing economy, policy
The principles of the sharing economy, initially linked with ethical consumption (sustainability), are the base for new Internet business models. Yet our understanding of behavioural patterns that match the ethical and individualistic motivations when participating in this type of exchange, as well as the wider implication of the sharing economy in society, remain an understudied field. In particular, this project examines the ethics of the sharing economy, focusing on Airbnb as a case study, in two major European touristic cities: London and Barcelona.
By using qualitative (focus groups and interviews) methods, this research project explores the impact of Airbnb at a macro-level (social, economic, legal and ethical) and at a micro-level (guest, hosts and non-users). It also analyses to what extent Airbnb is considered as part of ethical consumption within the wider sharing economy. This study will inform local and EU policy makers and beyond.
Within sharing economies there can be monetary exchange (e.g., Airbnb, BlaBlaCar), or the exchange can be altruistic (e.g., Timebanking, CouchSurfing). John (2013) differentiates between sharing economies of production (e.g., Wikipedia, Linux) and sharing economies of consumption
(e.g., BlaBlaCar, CouchSurfing, Airbnb), which have also been defined in terms of “collaborative consumption” (CC) (Germann Molz, 2014; Hamari et al., 2016). Following Botsman and Rogers (2010), Germann Molz(ibid.) explains that CC is based on access to goods and experiences rather than ownership and emphases the role of new media to facilitate the exchange of material goods. Likewise, Hamari et al. (2016, p. 2047) argue that CC is “a peer-to-peer-based activity of obtaining, giving, or sharing access to goods and services, coordinated through community- based online services” where access over ownership is the most common type of exchange and participants can be consumers, providers, or both. Green consumption and other sustainable behaviours, according to Hamari et al. (2016), are important drivers in the context of CC. In their study they found that perceived sustainability is an important factor in the formation of positive attitudes towards CC, but economic benefits are a stronger motivator for intentions to participate in the sharing economy. They point to future research directions in relation to whether consumers indeed show different behaviour patterns that match the ethical (sustainability) versus individualistic (economic benefits) motivations when participating in the
One argument that sharing economy companies often use to promote their sustainable ethos relates to the empowerment of individuals to generate revenue with existing assets. For
example, Airbnb (2017) states in its website: “Airbnb is unique in that we are actively democratizing capitalism– that is to say we’re creating opportunities, growing markets, and
empowering people to generate income utilizing an asset they already have, their home”. On the other hand, Pasquale (2016) posits that the neoliberal narrative of platform competition lionizes currently dominant sharing economy firms, such as Uber and Airbnb, which takes them far away from the initial sustainable ethos of the sharing economy. One of the main controversies is the framing of platforms where monetary transactions take place as ‘sharing’ economy (COST, 2017a).
The rise of the sharing economy in Europe has experienced an overwhelmed grown from €10 billion in 2013 (EU Environment, 2013) to €28 billion in 2015 (European Commission, 2016a). In order to analyse the sharing economy ethos, the European Commission has set a European
agenda for collaborative economy. In 2015, five key sectors facilitate the revenues of the sharing economy in Europe (short-term letting, passenger transport, household services, professional and technical services, collaborative finance). Within this context, peer-to-peer accommodation gained in 2015 the 2nd place in popularity (PwC, 2016). Of course, consumer interest is indeed strong, mainly based on the relationship between platforms and respondents (European
Commission, 2016b). Some of the concerns related to the sharing economy revolve around the lack of regulations and quality standards (COST, 2017a). Regulatory issues have been a concern for both the European Union and the cities where Airbnb operates. Incidents reported for hosts
and users lead companies and governments to regulation (Codagnone and Martens, 2016). As a matter of fact, we could mention the recent controversy between Airbnb and Barcelona’s city council that concludes with the closure of illegal accommodations (Rodero, 2017) or the 90-day
annual limit for London hosts (Booth and Newling, 2016).
The purpose of this research is to explore the impact of Airbnb at a macro level (social, economic, legal and ethical) and at a micro-level (guest, hosts and non-users) in London and Barcelona, and to examine whether the Airbnb model can be considered ethical consumption within the wider conceptualisation of the sharing economy. The study will use both quantitative (e.g., reports about housing pricing or Airbnb host activity per city) and qualitative (focus groups and interviews) methods, where appropriate stakeholders will be consulted (hosts, guests, non-users, rental apartment companies, local authorities). It will consider the workings and the delivery of Airbnb, and provide frameworks and tools that can inform usable policy. The following research objectives are derived from the main research aim:
- To examine the social and economic implications that arise from the use of Airbnb in London and Barcelona.
- To identify the motivations of hosts and guests to use Airbnb.
- To determine the convergence between the motivations to use this service and the ethics underlying the sharing economy.
- To contribute to the development of sharing economy policies related to Europe 2020 objectives.
This project adopts a comparative approach to researching issues that surround the sharing economy, by using Airbnb as a case study. The city based case study (London and Barcelona) reports on the experiences and views of the relevant stakeholders in the Airbnb sphere: host,
users, Airbnb public policy managers, rental apartment companies, council representatives and other local authorities. The barriers and opportunities for ethical practice will also be identified and reported according to the views of these stakeholders. Qualitative methods (interviews and
focus groups) were used to identify the different ways that diverse stakeholders perceive and understand Airbnb as a driver of ethical consumption and its impact on the economy and society. A total of four focus groups were run (a focus group with guest and another focus group with hosts in each city). 10 interviews (4 in London and 6 in Barcelona) with representatives from Barcelona and London city councils, Airbnb public policy managers, rental apartments
associations, hotel association, market and competition authority, and Sharing UK and Sharing Spain professional bodies were undertaken to provide richer more qualitative insights. The fieldwork in Barcelona took place between January and May 2018, and the fieldwork in London
took place between July and November 2018. Although 12 interviews were planned, the lack of response from UK Hospitality and CMA did not allow the research conducted in Barcelona to be mirrored 100% in London. The data collected through interviews and focus groups is currently
being analysed by the research team by using thematic analysis. One of the main project’s impact is its suitability for policy makers.