Janelle Orsi, an Ashoka Fellow sponsored by Rachel’s Network, is developing legal infrastructure that supports the sharing economy through her nonprofit, the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). Janelle took some time to tell us about her work, her accomplishments, and the promise of an economy based on sharing.


Rachel’s Network: Why do you think the sharing economy has grown in popularity?

Janelle Orsi: The sharing economy is the response to the predominant economic models in which our livelihoods and sustenance depend on resources from outside of our communities, often from large companies that have very little incentive to protect people and planet.  I use the phrase “sharing economy” to encompass a broad range of community-based activities, including worker cooperatives, neighborhood car-sharing programs, housing cooperatives, community gardens, food cooperatives, and renewable energy cooperatives.

When community members come together and harness their collective resources to provide for everyone, we lighten our impact on the planet, reduce our economic burdens, and tend to be happier. This is the potential of the sharing economy.


Why should environmentalists care about these developments?

The sharing economy addresses the economic roots of environmental crises and climate change. Economic conditions profoundly influence the ways that humans interact with ecosystems. Our predominant legal and economic structures reward people in the short-term when we extract or pollute the resources we need to sustain us in the long-run.

Some facets of the sharing economy that advance environmental goals include:

  • Resource Sharing: Car-sharing cooperatives, shared housing arrangements, community food gardens, and tool lending libraries help communities reduce consumption.
  • Localization: Small-scale and community-owned businesses create alternatives to large industries that rely heavily on fossil fuels and unsustainable methods of production.
  • Sustainable Work: Worker-owned cooperatives – in industries such as recycling, clean energy, and ecological agriculture – will help to ensure stable livelihoods for workers who will be displaced when coal mines, oil fields, and industrial agriculture become things of the past.


You’ve said that our existing legal system favors large-scale business. How and why did this happen?

Sometimes big companies lobby for tighter regulations on their own industries. This sounds counterintuitive until you realize that these regulations are sometimes aimed less at protecting people or planet, and aimed more at driving out competition from smaller businesses that can’t afford to comply with the regulations. In this respect, many laws favor large businesses, since those are the only businesses that can afford to comply.

For instance, if a group of 200 people form a neighborhood food buying cooperative aimed at supporting organic farms and food producers, that cooperative could easily find itself in violation of health, zoning, securities, and employment laws.

If the cooperative rents a small warehouse to receive and divvy up food orders, health regulators could fine the cooperative for not meeting the health and safety standards of a regular grocery store. The city planning department could require the cooperative to get an expensive permit before it approves the warehouse as a location for a grocery store. When the members each invest $500 to get the cooperative up and running, the cooperative could be violating securities laws, which strictly regulate the ways enterprises can solicit and receive investments.

Finally, if each member is obligated to volunteer three hours per month, the arrangement could violate employment laws, which prevent people from working without the protection of workers compensation insurance, minimum wage, and so on. All of these regulations play an important role in protecting society from the harms of large businesses, but those laws are awkward when applied to community-based and cooperatively-owned businesses.


We love the work that SELC is doing to “open up” the legal profession. How are your training programs changing how citizens engage with the law?

The legal profession is largely failing in its promise and duty to help administer a just society. Wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer people, and lawyers are both greasing the wheels of and benefiting from this extractive economic system. The majority of people cannot afford the services of a lawyer, nor can they afford to become lawyers, now that many law school tuitions are nearing $50,000 per year. At the same time, lawyers are needed en masse to help reinvent our economic system.

I believe it is time for society to reclaim both legal knowledge and the practice of law as a commons that maximizes access and benefit for everyone.

The SELC is working toward this goal by offering resources like the Resilient Communities Legal Cafe for people seeking legal advice on a wide range of sharing economy projects. We also provide fellowships and extensive training to law students and lawyers, help our non-lawyer staff members become lawyers without going to law school, and grow an international network of lawyers.


What changes has SELC catalyzed and what are your hopes for the future of the sharing economy? 

In 2012, SELC drafted and oversaw passage of the California Homemade Food Act, which has already triggered the creation of 2,000 food micro-enterprises. This year, SELC introduced four California bills to remove barriers to the creation of housing cooperatives, urban farms, worker cooperatives, and local currencies. One bill, the Neighborhood Food Act, will remove a handful of legal barriers to the sale of homegrown and urban-grown produce, likely resulting in thousands of additional micro-enterprises in California.

Our educational materials, legal guides, cartoons, videos, and events are democratizing access to legal knowledge. Since February of 2013, SELC has provided advice to nearly 300 Bay Area groups and our web portals are serving many more. We also provide legal representation to a handful of organizations that are pioneering new models of ownership and governance.

We would like to see every community on earth sustainably provide local sources of food, jobs, energy, clean water, goods, education, and housing. We believe that this can be achieved if community members come together to share responsibility, share control, and share the benefits of these projects.


What woman leader inspires you?

Jane Addams said that the “good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” This view seemed to drive her lifelong efforts to advocate for peace, women’s suffrage, and social support for women, children, immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized communities. She never gave up on the idea that change was possible, and I have to think that my own world is better because of her. I aim to pay it forward in the same tireless fashion.

I also see Jane Addams as a pioneer of the sharing economy. In 1889 she co-founded the Hull House in Chicago, which included a community kitchen, gym, art gallery, bathhouse, schools, and so many other projects and organizations that built community in a largely immigrant neighborhood. If only every community today could have a Hull House!


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