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a marketing strategy which deceives people by trying to suggest that a business is motivated by principles of sharing rather than conventional profits
'Sam Bliss, argued that companies like Airbnb, Uber, Lyft and Taskrabbit are not really part of the sharing-economy space. Bliss suggested that these companies are involved in share-washing as they're nothing but a rental broker, unregulated cab services, and a service that lets well-off people pay less well-off people to do their chores without providing benefits and job security.'Triple Pundit 24th April 2015
Sharing – it's one of the first principles parents attempt to instil in their offspring's moral compass. From toys in the kindergarten sandpit through to sweet treats in the playground, we're all familiar with childhood moments of being resoundingly reminded that we 'have to share'. And so it is that we've conventionally thought of sharing as a good, socially-robust thing. There couldn't be anything intrinsically negative about the idea of sharing, could there? Well no, not until very recently – and then along came sharewashing.
these kind of online ventures have been criticized for not providing the protections and benefits of traditional employment
An understanding of what is meant by sharewashing crucially depends on being familiar with what is now referred to as the sharing economy. This is an economic system based on the idea that different people or organizations cooperate with one another to share the creation, distribution and consumption of goods and services. It sounds great, and indeed many of us now happily partake in it in its various manifestations, a classic example being the incredibly popular service Airbnb, which links accommodation seekers with room providers in locations all across the world. However, now all the fuss has died down, and the concept of using online platforms to collaboratively request and offer services is no longer as novel and exciting as it once seemed, the sharing economy is beginning to lose its rosy glow. Many have pointed out that it's merely a business model, one of no more ethical virtue than any other, and even worse, that it uses the concept of sharing to disguise unregulated profiteering. Claims such as that, in reality, Airbnb is only a rental agency and Uber an unregulated taxi service, have spawned use of the term sharewashing by critics wanting to debunk the concept of the sharing economy. It's argued that the expression is particularly apt in relation to enterprises like TaskRabbit, which matches odd job requests – cleaning, small repairs, gardening etc – with local labourers. Often labelled as the concierge economy, these kind of online ventures have been criticized for not providing the protections and benefits of traditional employment whilst hiding behind the mantle of 'sharing (labour) resources', and are therefore particular culprits of sharewashing.
The expression sharewashing has been around for the past three years or so, a mash-up of sharing economy and verb whitewash in its sense of attempting to conceal the true facts about something. It likely takes inspiration from greenwashing, a term which first popped up in the early nineties to describe businesses purportedly acting in environmentally-conscious ways as a smokescreen to their real intentions. There's therefore an obvious parallel here, the positive concepts of being 'green' and 'sharing' both used to make business activity seem more wholesome than it actually is.
The verb whitewash dates back to the late 16th century, the figurative sense first appearing about 100 years later. On the back of the coinage of greenwash, -wash now seems to be developing an independent existence as a suffix implying something like 'cover-up'. A couple of other recent examples of its creative use are mathwash, which characterizes the idea of making something look like it has a rational, mathematical basis when in fact it doesn't, and straightwash, which describes the practice of portraying gay characters in history or fiction as if they were heterosexual (i.e. straight).
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This article was first published on 2nd August 2016.