Access Economy

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= "Initiatives sharing underutilized assets (material resources or skills) to optimize their use".[1]


By Aurélien Acquier, Thibault Daudigeos, and Jonatan Pinkse:

"The access economy covers a set of initiatives sharing underutilized assets (material resources or skills) to optimize their use. Many definitions of the sharing economy are built on the idea of optimizing underused assets to promote access instead of ownership (Belk, 2014a; Belk, 2014b). Access-based transactions that rely on temporal access instead of a transfer of ownership are not new. They have long existed in for-profit business models, e.g. rental or leasing, and non-profit models, e.g. borrowing books in public libraries (Bardhi and Eckhardt, 2012). However, Rifkin (2000) envisioned the emergence of an ‘Age of Access’, predicting a global shift of capitalism towards post-ownership societies, relying on short-term use and experience rather than long-term ownership of property. Recently, the access economy has materialized in the form of companies increasingly offering services instead of products, a process which has been referred to as product service systems, servitization, and functional business models (Mont, 2002). Many products are now shared instead of purchased including cars, houses, luxury clothes, and household appliances (Botsman and Rogers, 2010). The access economy covers a wide array of organizational and governance configurations. In some cases, the organization of access relies on a high centralization of assets where one organization owns and manages the assets, such as car-pooling systems like Zipcar and Autolib (Bardhi and Eckhardt, 2012; Lamberton and Rose, 2012). In other cases, access rests on a decentralized ownership of assets within a network of peers, such as peer-to-peer car rental (Sundararajan, 2013). Besides, the access economy does not prescribe a specific governance form; it can either be for profit, non-profit, a public-private partnership or a cooperative model.

The access economy holds different promises. On the economic and social side, the access economy offers broader and cheaper access to services for customers in the short term. Access avoids the need to invest in acquiring ownership (Bardhi and Eckhardt, 2012). On the environmental side, the access economy is promoted as a sustainable solution (Firnkorn and Müller, 2011). Sharing and mutualisation enable a more intensive use of products, offering better ‘leverage’ of natural capital that is ‘trapped’ in a given product. Besides, as producers remain the owners of the assets, they are responsible for environmental externalities, and have the incentive to design green and durable products (Braungart and McDonough, 2002).

However, the access economy also suffers from tensions and paradoxes, which limit their social and environmental impact. A first problem concerns the incentives, moral hazard and information asymmetries involved with shared resources (Arrow, 1963). Since individuals are paying for a temporary service, they lack incentives to treat products gently. Bardhi and Eckhardt (2012) show that sharing does not always lead to a caring attitude and offer some explanations why users do not care for shared cars. They argue that a lack of identification with a shared product, a weak community-based social control and a low probability of negative reciprocity in case of misbehaviour are the main reasons for a careless use of shared resources. Likewise, Tukker (2004) suggests a clear tension between economic and environmental objectives. He shows how functional business models with the strongest sustainability potential involve strong risk premiums and liability risks for companies. The owners of the shared resources have to bear costly investments to enforce efficient control mechanisms to monitor customers and prevent deviant user behaviour.

The “Jevons Paradox” constitutes another type of environmental paradox applicable to the access economy. In the 19th century, Jevons (1865) observed how technological progress and efficiency gains in steam engines did not lead to a reduction in the overall consumption of coal. Instead, they resulted in increased consumption due to a decrease in relative cost and a rise in market demand. While the access economy might tackle the underutilization of resources that stand idle (environmental promise), they also make products more accessible and generate new uses (social and economic promise), ending up with additional resources being used by the community as a whole. By making access to cars cheaper and more practical than other collective transportation services, car-sharing systems generate additional miles (Phipps et al., 2013). Sharing economy initiatives thus generate ‘rebound effects’ that are detrimental to environmental stewardship (Demailly and Novel, 2014), or stimulate unsustainable consumer behaviour such as indulgent consumption." (


Access Platforms

By Aurélien Acquier, Thibault Daudigeos, and Jonatan Pinkse:

"A first set of dual-core initiatives – Access platforms – give access to underutilized resources, or services, through digital platforms. Famous sharing economy companies such as Airbnb and Blablacar that connect users with owners of dwellings and cars, respectively, belong to this category. They optimize the usage of durable goods and allow greater access to expensive goods, and thus help to fulfil the environmental and social promise of the access economy (Eckhardt and Bardhi, 2016). In addition, they benefit from the advantages of the platform economy (Srineck, 2016). They drastically reduce the risk of moral hazard by leveraging the monitoring properties of digital platforms such as digital tracking, peer-evaluations, and insurance contracts. Transaction costs are reduced considerably by facilitating connections between supply and demand (Williamson, 2000). If access platforms adopt a capitalistic governance scheme, they can aim for high scalability on a global scale in the short run.

However, access platforms are not entirely without critique. By adopting platform logics, they suffer from the tensions that come with such logics. The major critique is the unbalanced contribution to the wellbeing of all stakeholders involved and thus a lack of consideration for the community at large (Dreyer et al., in this issue). Access platforms suffer from the adverse effects of high scalability and a skewed focus on benefits for shareholders and users to the detriment of others. In addition, the conjunction of scalability and access gives rise to new tensions or amplify those related to the access and/or platform economy. The broad and cheap access offered could worsen the ‘rebound effects’ (Demailly and Novel, 2014) and stimulate even more indulgent consumption leading to uncertain environmental benefits (Parguel et al., in this issue). The social and economic promises of greater access to resources might thus run counter to the environmental promise of greater resource efficiency." (