Communal sharing helps the environment in rural areas

2019-12-20 Sanni Heinonen and Wilma Poutanen

The fact that natural resources are finite forces us to seek new solutions for lowering material consumption down to a sustainable level. Reducing excess consumption requires the adoption of a circular economy outside of urban areas as well. One of the ways in which the circular economy promotes sustainable consumption is the sharing economy.

Is the sharing economy an urban phenomenon?

The sharing economy means practises based on shared use that emphasise the use of goods over owning them. The sharing economy encompasses practises such as the purchasing and selling of used goods, borrowing and joint ownership between two or more people. Discussion and reporting on the sharing economy has increased particularly in the last few years.

However, in Finland the circular economy can be considered to be a primarily urban phenomenon. For example, shared use cars are used in urban centres and city bikes are becoming increasingly common in the largest cities. Various companies focusing on the sharing economy have also started to spring up in cities, such as boat borrowing companies and Airbnb-type accommodation renting services. It is also worth noting that nowadays the sharing economy is often based on electronic platforms, which have made sharing easier.

There is much less discussion about the sharing economy in the context of rural areas, as few of the sharing economy services found in cities are available in sparsely populated areas. Profitability is a challenge for sharing economy companies in rural areas, as low population numbers make for small demand. However, just because the sharing economy practices found in urban centres are not found in rural areas does not mean that there are no sharing economy practices found in sparsely populated areas.

Alongside a questionnaire conducted as part of the WasteLess Karelias project, we asked some of the residents of the village of Mekrijärvi in Ilomantsi whether there are any sharing economy practises in their village. In addition to the main village of Mekrijärvi, we conducted interviews in the Ryökkylä concentration of houses, which residents considered to be a distinct local community.

The rural sharing economy is reciprocal assistance

Our initial assumption was that rural village communities are characterised by community orientation and a propensity for voluntary work. The interviews revealed that these characteristics had been only partially preserved in Ilomantsi, likely due to demographic changes. The preserved characteristics could be described as loose community orientation, in which the assistance of neighbours plays a notable part. The villages in question did not exhibit much in the way of a sharing economy connected to platforms. Information was only conveyed via the village notice board and personal messages and telephone conversations.

The interviewees talked about the borrowing of items, which occurs within the family or between groups of friends or neighbours. The borrowing of expensive items with low usage rates, such as machines and devices, seems to be more common than that of everyday items, and some are also jointly owned. In regard to attitudes towards sharing, the interviewees’ answers emphasised reciprocation and the motivation of financial gain. Some emphasised independent consumption: life in the village community has not been traditionally based on shared use.

The interviews conducted in Mekrijärvi revealed that sharing economy practises occurred within families and circles of friends. In order for the sharing economy to be more widely established as a circular economy practice in rural communities, various actions are required. Firstly, it is important to share more information about the circular economy, as its forms and terminology seem to be relatively unknown to many. Instead of the sharing economy services used in urban centres, rural areas will also need distinct ways of promoting the sharing economy.

Municipalities can make a difference

Seeing as how many municipalities have adopted a goal of promoting circularity, municipalities could also take it upon themselves to coordinate the sharing economy, especially in rural areas. They could start by conducting surveys on which sharing economy services are needed in villages. Municipalities could also own items that residents could borrow, either free or for a small fee. Some municipal libraries have already expanded their collections from books to the likes of sports equipment or health devices, such as blood pressure meters.

Activating village committees and other associations to coordinate sharing is also a potential promotion method, through their influence seems to have weakened, at least in Mekrijärvi. In fact, concentrating community-based sharing to village communities could be an opportunity to revitalise their role and bring the community closer together.

Increasing sharing through traditional methods

Efforts to promote the sharing economy in rural areas should also take into account population numbers and the local age structure. Rural areas are primarily inhabited by older people, for whom social media, one of the most important sharing economy platforms in cities, is not necessarily as effective a solution. With this in mind, it might be worthwhile to also utilise traditional media, such as newspapers, village communities and physical noticeboards, as sharing economy platforms.

To spread the active use of sharing economy platforms beyond urban areas, more research should be conducted on community-oriented consumption in sparsely populated areas and the characteristics thereof. The effectiveness of financial incentives in promoting participation in the sharing economy should also be more widely tested. However, the development of the sharing economy in sparsely populated rural areas is not only beset with population development challenges, but also dependent on the logistical accessibility of rural areas. As such, local resources and existing practices reminiscent of sharing economy platforms and maintained by village communities, such as joint ownership, have the potential to contribute to the establishment of a culture of economic sharing in rural areas as well.

Student of social sciences Sanni Heinonen and student of environmental politics Wilma Poutanen, University of Eastern Finland

WasteLess Karelias

WasteLess Karelias addresses the problem of littering and insufficient waste management facilities in rural villages in North Karelia and the Karelian Republic. We encourage and support local residents, authorities and companies to improve their waste management system and the rural living environment. We explore local waste situation and the perceptions, knowledge and potentials of waste prevention and recycling. WasteLess Karelias organises local waste management workshops, clean up events, cross border school competition and a Trash-Art Festival.

The project is lead by University of Eastern Finland (UEF) and carried out in collaboration with 3 additional partners: Association for Rural Culture and Education (MSL), Insitute of Economics of the Karelian Research Center (IoE) and the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE).

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