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Sharewashing is the New Greenwashing

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Headlined to H4 5/13/13

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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 of Sidecar 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" sharewash their products. To the question: Why don't your workers make a living wage? they answer: Oh, they aren't working... they're "sharing..."

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Anthony Kalamar is an independent scholar and writer on environmental and technology issues.
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For more on the "fuzzy objects of sharing," check ... by Anthony Kalamar on Monday, May 13, 2013 at 1:10:14 PM