Shared goods and services, such as Zipcar and New Balance Hubway, are gaining popularity as sustainable alternatives to ownership. However, a new study by Sawyer Business School Professor Giana Eckhardt and Northeastern Professor Fleura Bardhi questions the common belief that collaborative consumption is altruistically motivated.

Their study, which will appear in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that consumers may not always take the best care of their loaned objects because they do not feel a psychological sense of ownership.

Eckhardt and Bardhi interviewed and rode along with 40 Zipcar users to gain a firsthand understanding of how consumers share the cars.

"Our study represents the first look at how consumers think, feel, and act when they are accessing rather than purchasing products, and we discovered that the nature of access-based consumption is inherently different from ownership," the authors wrote.

Although Zipcar is trying to build a community brand, the findings suggest that consumers prioritize self-interest over community. The study participants did not experience a sense of shared ownership and did not feel connected to each other. Consumers consider Zipcar to be the enforcer of rules rather than the facilitator of a community.

"Zipcar uses a strict style of governance to maintain compliance with the rules of car sharing to make sure cars aren't brought back late, the gas tank is filled, etc. Consumers like and even want more of this surveillance, as they feel it is the only way the system can work effectively, since they don't trust each other to obey the rules without Zipcar's heavy handed enforcement," the authors wrote.

The consumers’ lack of trust and their perception of Zipcar as an enforcer lead them to engage with the brand solely as a service provider, the authors concluded. "Our study challenges the romanticized view of access understood as a form of collaborative consumption and altruistically motivated. Instead, we show it to be the reverse, with everyone looking out for their own best interest and not connecting to the objects they are accessing, other consumers, or the company," the authors wrote.

Eckhardt, a marketing consumer behavior expert, is the co-author of the 2010 book: The Myth of the Ethical Consumer. She has presented her work globally, including at the United Nations Corporate Social Responsibility Global Forum. She has also worked closely with companies such as McKinsey and Dunkin’ Brands, and her work has been featured in The Economist, Euromonitor, Asiaweek, and on National Public Radio.