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Is Sharewashing the new Greenwashing?

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
23rd May 2014


There’s a debate going on about what a “sharing economy” actually constitutes – and that’s a good thing. The fact that there’ll be no end to this debate will be stressful to those who’d like some tidy answers to parrot.  From our point of view, the mutulization of resources and the decrease of “consumerism for its own sake” are good things, but we have to ask ourselves … what happens to the mutualization of the value created? To keep the conversation going, we present this article by Anthony Kalamar and originally published at Opednews.com.


Sharewashing does more than just misrepresent things like renting, working, and surveilling as “sharing.” It does more than just stretch and contort the meaning of the word “sharing” until it practically loses all meaning. It also disables the very promise of an economy based on sharing by stealing the very language we use to talk about it, turning a crucial response to our impending ecological crisis into another label for the very same economic logic which got us into that crisis in the first place.

Greenwashing has been around for some years now. Corporations were not slow to realize that re-branding their products as “green” was a quicker, and much cheaper way to hold on to consumer loyalties than going the arduous, more expensive route of actually making their products better for the environment. Yet perhaps the allure of greenwashing has started to fade — entrepreneurs and marketing types are flocking to adopt the new buzzword “sharing” for their products, regardless of whether these involve any actual sharing per se.

The idea of a “sharing economy” is an important one, and urgently needed today. Rampant consumption and the imperative of economic growth are among the main causes for the environmental crisis we are now facing. Sharing resources we already have means cutting back on needless consumption; and sharing itself , the non-monetary movement of goods and services between friends and within communities, provides a long-overdue correction to the profit-driven expansion of our economic system.

So it’s important to be clear that the sharing economy as a whole is not involved in “sharewashing.” Below, I list three different ways that the term “sharing” has been roped into a sharewashing agenda.

The key difference between the promise of the actual sharing economy, and the flood of sharewashing companies seeking to hide under its mantle, is that the latter inescapably involve monetary exchange, for profit, in stark contrast to any definition of “sharing” your mother, presumably, once taught you.

1. Renting is now sharing!

Some people have kind, lovable landlords. Others aren’t so lucky. But all of us who rent our homes can be thankful that our landlords have chosen to share them with us — as long as we pay the rent, of course!

What? That doesn’t sound like “sharing” to you? You must not have heard how AirBnB — which facilitates short-term room subletting via the internet — has been touted as one of the premier examples of the “sharing economy.” Now, I have used and enjoyed AirBnB, as have many people I know. But is it a form of “sharing?” Ridiculous!

And AirBnB is not alone. Chegg lets students rent textbooks instead of buying them; Getable is an app that helps you rent tools. Both of these are quite reasonable, useful enterprises — yet both Getable and Chegg have jumped on the “sharing economy” bandwagon!

At best, using “sharing” when you really mean “renting” degrades the meaning of the word and introduces confusion, potentially disenchanting those who would otherwise be attracted to the sharing economy. At worst, this is a cover for seeking out occasions when people are already sharing and turning these back into monetary exchanges, the very opposite of sharing.

2. Working is now sharing!

This is an even more flabbergasting, and frankly frightening, development. Take the examples ofSidecar and Lyft. These are apps which allow you to drive your car around town, picking up passengers and taking them where they want to go, for money. Sound like a taxi? No way! This is “ridesharing.” It’s not like a taxi in that you don’t need a taxi license or medallion, and you get paid via a “suggested donation” rather than a legally established fare… It is like a taxi in that you get paid for driving people where they want to go, and because Lyft (or Sidecar, or whichever competing service you use) takes a percentage of your income, just like Danny DeVito collected from Tony Danza and the other cabdrivers in the old tv show, Taxi

What do Lyft and Sidecar drivers share that taxi drivers don’t share? That would be much of the risk of doing business — in fact, the companies give the drivers all the risk, they’re that generous! “Ridesharing” drivers drive their own cars, use their own fuel, and pay their own insurance. And they are also the ones on the line when their pseudo-taxis get busted or when their insurance is denied after an accident because they were operating as an unlicensed taxicab.

And the taxi/ridesharing companies are not even the most extreme example of this. Consider TaskRabbit.

A TaskRabbit is an everyday person, just like a Sidecar or Lyft driver, but willing to do almost any task or chore that you have a need for. What’s even better, TaskRabbits will bid against each other to do the job, so you can pick the cheapest! Goodbye minimum wage laws! No more driving down to sketchy neighborhoods to hire desperate immigrants off the street corners. TaskRabbit brings all this to you — and takes a percentage, of course!

What is behind this urge to call working — and not just any kind of work, but difficult, low-paying, and often dangerous work — “sharing?” Simply put, TaskRabbit, Sidecar, Lyft and similar companies are at the forefront of the precarization of the US workforce. “Precarization” means the process of getting into a more and more precarious situation. Remember how many workers used to have unions, pensions, health insurance? And now they don’t? The erosion of worker power doesn’t stop there. Precarious workers lack job security, lack protections like worker’s comp, unemployment benefits, health insurance, and even minimum wage laws.

It sounds unpalatable because it is. So the companies exploiting this new “precariat” sharewashtheir products. To the question: Why don’t your workers make a living wage? they answer: Oh, they aren’t working… they’re “sharing…”

3. Big Brother is sharing you!

Finally, we reach the point where the word “sharing” becomes virtually meaningless, even contentless. Social media sites like Facebook urge us to “share” information, data, locations, birthdays, our moods and most recent purchases, with an expanding crowd of “friends,” but more significantly with Facebook (or Google, or Twitter…) itself. The “Big Data” these internet behomoths amass through “sharing” is worth big money. But that’s not all: information also equals power.

By sharing your information with these companies you are allowing them to track, collect information on, and even anticipate your movements, choices, and social interactions. Now, hey — some people find this pretty convenient! Others of us find it chilling, even dystopian. My point here is to ask: why call it “sharing?” This is the point where the bottom-up dream of a sharing economy is translated into the top-down code of a marketing algorithm. It doesn’t help that a number of “sharing economy” sites –such as Lyft (see above) and Yerdle — rely on Facebook’s built-in surveillance system to identify and track users. One meaning of “sharing” blends into the other, and the verb itself becomes intransitive, without object or content, just a vague call to “share.”

So what’s wrong with this?

Sharewashing does more than just misrepresent things like renting, working, and surveilling as “sharing.” It does more than just stretch and contort the meaning of the word “sharing” until it practically loses all meaning. It also disables the very promise of an economy based on sharing by stealing the very language we use to talk about it, turning a crucial response to our impending ecological crisis into another label for the very same economic logic which got us into that crisis in the first place.

What has driven our economy of overconsumption so far? The need for growth, based on the need for investors to make a profit. So for over a hundred years it has been all about growth — find new markets, develop new products, find new ways to get people to consume. That economy’s gotta grow, baby. And all the for-profit sharewashing companies listed above are also growing big time. They don’t counteract the growth juggernaut of the mainstream economy – they add to it , because they share that economy’s market logic of neverending growth for profit. Those spare rooms, empty car seats, and idle hands can be translated into money, once they are brought to market. Social relations which might have been characterized by real sharing are brought back under the aegis of monetary calculation and the logic of growth.

What we need is not more of the same old problem. What we need is degrowth – less consumption, less consumerism in general. We need sharing — and a clear idea of what sharing is and isn’t – if we are to move beyond a doomed economic model in which money is the measure of all things. The goal of a sharing economy gives us a chance to do that. Let’s not let sharewashing nip it in the bud.

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10 Responses to “Is Sharewashing the new Greenwashing?”

  1. Matthew Slater Says:

    Important subject thanks.
    I don’t think we can nip sharewashing in the bud because we are not the ones doing it. We can fight a war over semantics or we can realise how both debt hunger for profit drive organisations to lie about what they are doing.
    It is up to us to act on good information when we do business with organisations we don’t know. The organisation itself is the last place we should be looking for that information!

  2. Stacco Troncoso Says:

    Totally agree, Matthew and we should (in fact, are) create our full P2P-type organizations.

  3. Bob Haugen Says:

    P2P needs Commons to have any soul. Stacco, I know you know this.

    This is just a reminder, not criticism of this wonderful article. I love it, as well as the others on this topic that you have posted recently.

  4. Anthony Kalamar Says:

    Thank you for “sharing” (ahem) the article. I am a fan of the p2pfoundation and all that you accomplish.

    I do feel that corporate use of the term “sharing” is moving into a new stage in its cycle as a media buzzword. Just as it increasingly picked up in the media, more cracks appear in the facade as more people start to question the relevance of the word “sharing” in this context. There could be some hope that this will lead to greater social awareness of other projects more genuinely concerned with the idea.

    On the other hand, as marketers search around for a new term to replace “sharing” they are increasingly turning to “peer” or “peer to peer.” You can find these terms increasingly applied to centralized networks on the basis of some quite limited (and carefully managed) ranges of “choice” allowed to customers and service providers. I hate to say it but as sharewashing declines, p2p-washing is bound to rise. Advocates of bottom-up p2p networks need to insist on clarity in public debate on what p2p means, and what it does not.

    Bob Haugen put it very well in his comment.

    In Solidarity,
    Anthony

  5. Stacco Troncoso Says:

    Great points, all. I really enjoyed the article Anthony and we’d love to republish more of your work on an ongoing basis. I agree with you too, Bob. Maybe it’s a bit of an oversimplification but I intuitively perceive “Commons” as more emotional and feminine and “P2P” as more intellectual and masculine. We’re trying to speak of the “P2P/Commons movement” and building bridges to include the “Cooperative movement” as one of the fairer forms of interfacing with the market to ensure our sustainability. (Read this trialogue, Anthony, if you haven’t already)

    So that’s the work we have cut out for us in these next few years. We feel that the VC-led Micro-rental economy may just be the next big economic bubble (alongside Fracking, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. As the bubble bursts, we want real Full-P2P (as in both use and exchange value) initiatives to be on the ground and creating a viable counter-economy.

  6. Bob Haugen Says:

    Stacco, I’m totally with you on cooperatives, too. My grandparents were members of the Nonpartisan League, which you can read about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonpartisan_League

    They were subsistence farmers in western North Dakota, a difficult environment to farm in. In their community, no farmers lost their land during the dust bowl and depression of the 1930′s, largely because of their cooperatives and solidarity that were forged in the NPL.

  7. Michel Bauwens Says:

    I think the general problem is that whatever term we will use, it will always be systematically adapted to other, including dominant interests. We are not strong enough to avoid this, and probably should not be in the game of policing language anyway. But what we can do is to be careful and precise about how use language. Indeed, p2p, in countries like the Netherlands for example, is almost exclusively use to describe so called distributed marketplaces (which are almost always centralized platforms). Our p2p-f interpretation of p2p is entirely different, as that form of relationing and creating value that creates commons, associated to the real sharing of that common resources. Typically, that is precisely the part that is left out by people like Rachel Botsman when they offer a synthesis of the sharing economy. It has all the parts of the rental and ‘work piecemeal for low wages’ economy and manages to entirely ignore peer production and commons-based economies. But apart from semantics, what really matters is: who controls and governs the mutualisation of resources in times of increasing resource and energy scarcity. So this is not just a bubble stacco, though bubbles may occur along the way, this is the key struggle for the future phase of the economy and civilization.

  8. Anthony Kalamar Says:

    Hello Michel,

    I agree that it is not a matter of “policing language” – even the actual police do not have this ability, thankfully! There is, nevertheless, an assymetrical war of ideas that is being played out in the realm of words. In the current round of media coverage, the broad interpretation of “sharing economy” assists in the recuperation of the commons-oriented p2p movement by the other “sharing economy” backed by venture capital. (This is perhaps most easily done in English, where the word “sharing” has multiple complicated connotations, much like the word “free,” as many people have pointed out).

    So often I see this formula in the media: idealists and activists are invited to discuss the ideals and possibilities of the sharing economy; an academic is called upon to provide the stamp of scientific authority; then the discussion turns to AirBnB and Uber, etc. showing how these “entrepreneurs” are putting the ideals into practice in a way that implies also, and not by accident, that the “free market” is the best guarantor of “freedom.” In any event the activists and academics introduce the ideal of the peer economy, but it is capitalism that delivers. This easy narrative needs to be disabled, or at least made more difficult.

    “Greenwashing” was a great term that did exactly this when corporate environmentalism was first catching on. The very term encourages a healthy suspicion of the altruistic claims of any for-profit entity. “Greenwashing” as a word and a critical concept did not do away with greenwashing as an activity, but it helped make it more difficult – Chevron’s infamous “People Do” campaign, for example, became a laughingstock.

  9. Curmudgeon Says:

    So, social and financial obligations and morals are set aside in favor of “sharing”. It works both ways.

    What happens when people decide not to “share” their income with the government, tax authorities or chose not to “share” their eyewitness information with police after a crime is committed?

    What happens when people decide not to “share” their neighborhood with minorities or outsiders?

  10. Elizabeth Burton Says:

    As the wife of a licensed cab driver in a city where the “shared ride” companies have arrogantly ignored the regulations and simply moved in and started doing business, this subject is of special interest to me. The fans of these services jumped on a tragedy at a recent large event caused by a drunken driver to advance the false idea there aren’t enough cabs to ensure inebriated people can get home without driving.

    There are plenty of cabs available. Their drivers just aren’t in the mood to spend an hour or more cleaning puke out of their cab, all the while losing money in a business with very tight margins, or risk physical injury if a drunk passenger gets belligerent. However, the tactics these companies use are so blatantly the same as what any other for-profit “service” industry engages in, it’s sad and frustrating that people who know nothing about how taxi service works embrace them as a huge improvement when they are anything but.

    It’s been pointed out elsewhere that the “sharewashing” services at least allow the unemployed or underemployed to make some money on the side, but the ones I’ve read so far don’t mention, as does this piece, that those drivers (just like cabbies—who knew?) are responsible for insurance and fuel. However, as part of the fees cabbies pay to the cab company, they get their repairs taken care of, for the most part. Who’ll do that for the “citizen drivers” when some uninsured driver plows into them when they have passengers aboard?

    And let us not forget that most if not all personal auto insurance companies don’t cover the cars if they’re used for commercial purposes. Or that rates go up based on the number of miles driven annually. Are the shared-ride companies telling their drivers all these things, or do they want and let it be a surprise?

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