It’s a trap; how to beware of greenwashing, pinkwashing and bluewashing

read | October 1, 2021

You may have seen the terms greenwashing, pinkwashing, bluewashing floating around, but what do they mean? And how can you see through the surface so you don’t fall victim to these unsubstantiated claims leading you to think such companies or governments are doing more than they are. 

The term “washing”, in this context, refers to a misrepresentation or conveying a false impression about a company or government’s sincere efforts and support towards a fundamental cause. These causes or initiatives are often associated with colour and representative symbology that organisations and even countries exploit for economic gain. Therefore, colour washing is often a positive marketing or publicity technique used to distract attention from the negative actions of an organisation or government. So as an introduction, let’s run through three of the most common forms of colour washing.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is the process of giving misleading information or a false impression about how environmentally safe a company’s products truly are. These claims of taking steps to protect the environment are used to improve a company’s image and gain customers while at the same time continuing to carry out business as usual and causing mass environmental damage.

This term greenwashing was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, and since then, if you look around, you may have noticed that suddenly every cooperation is claiming to be green, yet, at the same time, they continue to exacerbate the issues that bring about environmental disasters. Can an organisation be green and a polluter at the same time? (you be the judge). Many companies like Shell, BMW, and General Electric have all been accused of greenwashing, through using marketing campaigns and internally measured corporate social responsibility (CRS) reports with no independent reviews divert the public’s attention from other activities that are usually significantly at odds with environmentalism.

greenwashing tell the truth
Credits: Tell the Truth / Green Wash Photograph: Vincenzo Lullo  / Shutterstock.com

Greenwashing is extremely dangerous because it gives the appearance of change when no actual change is being done. It also confuses people, not allowing them to discern what green or sustainable is in a world where everyone is now claiming to be green. Sadly, the reality is that very little is green or sustainable.

Here are some tips so you don’t get caught in the greenwashing trap:

  1. Be a sceptic; lack of transparency is often a dead giveaway that a company isn’t actually green.   
  2. Look for certified eco-labels; terms like eco-friendly, sustainable and recycled are often superficially affixed to products. Try downloading the app ecolabel index, and this helps you track over 400 labels in over 150 countries. 
  3. Do your research, and if they make you work for information, then they are probably trying to cover something up. Some useful apps to help you when shopping around are how goodthink dirtygood on you and eco-label guide.
  4. Is the company still carrying out the same processes it was before? Are they actually changing their businesses models core? For example, is Apple is reducing its comprehensive carbon footprint by 35%, and all its data centres are powered entirely by renewable energy. Still, the culture of Apple proves otherwise; when unused and unrecycled smartphones are depleting the planet of necessary resources, Apple continues to push its “buy one every year strategy” and planned obsolescence to keep profit margins high. If Apple wanted to make fundamental changes, it could easily make upgradable devices to extend product lifecycle and cut down e-waste. For more information on e-waste, check out our previous article
  5. Is the company or government continuing to put the onus on individual action and consumers, rather than taking the bulk of the responsibility and action themselves?

Fast fashion is possibly one of the most pertinent examples we can give when it comes to being greenwashed. Consider this, can fast fashion ever be sustainable? Until now, no brands have proven to be despite all of them claiming to be green-focused by implementing programs like H&M’s in-store recycling program, giving customers the chance to falsely feel morally righteous while keeping them coming back to buy more, again reinforcing the narrative of clothes being easily disposable. Also, despite their recycling program being active for several years, they have still not disclosed how they recycle these clothes or where they go.

H&M’s more recent greenwashing ploys conscious collection comprises garments made from organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Tencel. However, H&M has not been transparent about how these materials are kinder to the environment, especially when they continue to produce in such mass quantities. How exactly are they reducing their impact? And under what metrics? These questions remain to go unanswered.

Even though companies are trying to be transparent and there are more tools to help us, most of the detective work rests on us to think critically and mark where we stand on these issues. So, if you’re passionate about it, do your research. 

Pinkwashing or Rainbowwashing

The colour pink is the colour that represents the LQBTQI+ community. This colour association comes with a historically dark origin that has since been reclaimed. The pink symbology stems from second world war concentration camps, where people who were believed to be queer were forced to wear pink triangles on their shirts; this symbology has now been transformed into a form of empowerment for the LQBTQI+ community. However, it is now subject to exploitation from those seeking to take advantage of a vulnerable community that feels unseen. This form of washing has proven to be very controversial as many feel like this is simply a publicity stunt rather than a genuine effort to make a change.

Some argue that promoting the queer community through communication and messaging provides society with healthy exposure, making it more mainstream and widely accepted. Yet, others believe it is a way for a company or country to prescribe itself with the image of being open, modern, tolerant and supportive, without actually functioning in a manner that genuinely is making efforts to support these communities or changing their internal company or societal culture. One example of this was Israel, which received mass backlash after using LGBTQI+ symbology for government propaganda. 

Primark pinkwashing
Credits: Primark Pride Photograph: AL Robinson / Shutterstock.com

When it’s pride month, this is particularly obvious as you’ll notice many companies, for example, fashion brands co-opting pride to sell products. It’s essential to understand if they are giving back to the community aside from the publicity and if they aren’t, they are essentially profiting from a community without giving back. As consumers, it’s essential to question and be critical of these companies rather than blindly accepting their efforts as being substantial. Here are some questions to ask when trying to spot pinkwashing.

  1. Is it seasonal and short-term? Are companies otherwise homophobic or transphobic for most of the year aside from pride week?
  2. Are they working with the LGBTQI+ communities, and if so, in what capacity? 
  3. Is the campaign explicitly about LGBTQI+ people, or is it general advertising about the brand or with generic statements and rainbows on garments? 
  4. Are the products and campaigns reinforcing the systems of oppression that we see today? For example, in the fashion industry, or is it a genuinely inclusive outreach?
  5. What models and designers are they using for the campaign? And are they employing them for any other campaigns for the rest of the year?
  6. Is the gay community the only community they make mention of or talk about? When they don’t mention the others, they are making the rest invisible.
  7. Is their main motto “love is love”? If so, this is only validating LGBTQI+ people in the context of romantic love and a relationship. 
  8. What is the company’s internal culture?

For more on the roots of this topic, check out this insightful articleAnd if you want to know of some brands that are doing it right, read here.

Bluewashing

Bluewashing is associated with the United Nations (UN) and is a more unknown and surprising form of washing. This all came about when the UN created the UN Global Compact program at the turn of the century, which was created to move corporations towards human rights and sustainability developments goals. However, the UN has made it extremely easy for companies with terrible track records to join the global compact partnership. Let us explain; there are ten key principles that govern the program and that organisations “must” follow to align with respecting human and environmental rights. However, the agreement to abide by these ten principles is non-binding. Also, compliance is limited because it’s up to companies themselves to provide their annual self-assessment report. Then the compact decides if the ten principles were met based on this self-provided report. This explains why companies like Bayer, Nike, and Shell are part of the global compact and can use the blue UN logo and symbology. The UN has essentially created an easy way out for companies to enhance their image and shift attention from their controversial business practices. 

Un blue flag

Nike has been a part of the global compact since 2000; however, during their 21-year partnership, it has been accused of numerous human rights violations, including that Nike is amongst the 83 multinational companies employing forced labour in China

Many companies like this join the partnership and give the world the image that they care about social issues and don’t violate environmental rights when they continue with the same unethical behaviours as before. This strategic method has since been granted the label of bluewashing. So when you see any conglomerate or multinational sporting UN symbology, take it with a tiny, tiny, tiny grain of salt. For this agreement to be meaningful, the UN must drastically rethink this program and who should qualify as human and environmental rights promoters.

Being a critical thinker isn’t easy, especially when these companies have the resources to make some of the most desirable and shiny consumer items on the market. But it’s important to see behind the line of visibility and question what these companies are doing. 

You may be wondering, so, where does Ccrave stand? Ccrave wants to keep you as far away from these brands as possible by creating a platform that makes it easier for you to find the items on the market that meet the highest level of ethical and environmental standards. Building trust is paramount for us, which is why each of the products in Ccrave undergoes strict vetting process to verify if, indeed, their social and environmental claims are valid. So all the garments and products you find on our platform are green, pink and bluewashing free, so you can shop with confidence!

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