From greenwashing to pinkwashing: all the shades of brand activism, behind the facade

One of the most popular marketing strategies of the past few years has been associating one’s brand to social issues. Whoever uses social networks, surfs the internet, or just watches TV, can easily recall a promotional campaign in which the product advertised endorsed messages related to female empowerment, multiculturalism or LGBQT+ rights, just to name a few examples

This strategy is called brand activism, and it has become a fundamental element in determining the success or failure of a company. Since the public opinion has become more aware of environmental issues, and the younger generations,
often the favourite target of the biggest brands, demand a more equal society, businesses have had to go in the same direction. The personal values held by CEOs and administrators in a firm are not known to the public, but there’s no doubt that riding the wave of current trends, while remaining true to some core ‘’identity’’, is what makes a brand desirable and respected.

It is a strategy that can bring positive outcomes, for example in promoting messages of inclusiveness and proposing more representation of minorities in mainstream media. But brands will always only mirror the opinions of the masses, without advancing truly innovative values. In fact, it would be against business interests to support minority ideologies.

How authentic is this?

The demand for sustainability and ethical practices, however, is not always met with a proper response. Oftentimes companies depict themselves as more politically engaged and therefore “better” to appeal to the public, while it is just a facade to distract from unsustainable and compromising actions, such as polluting, underpaying workers, evading taxes, etc.

The specific practice of falsely depicting themselves as environmentally friendly and conscious is called “greenwashing”. This term was first used by American environmentalist Jay Westervelt in 1986, to describe the hotel industry profiting off lower laundry costs by asking guests to reuse their towels to “save the planet”. In reality, little to no effort was put forth by these hotels to reduce their energy waste. Recent examples are countless.

Fast-fashion behemoth H&M, whose problematic practices could be described for pages and pages, in 2017 decided to clean its image through the introduction on the market of the ‘’Conscious’’ collection, all the while continuing to sell their regular clothing items. Using 50% ‘’sustainable materials’’ is not enough to undo the damage and waste that their main collection involves, along with the scary percentage between 1% and 25% only of traced facilities in H&M’s supply chain paying a living wage to their workers. It is clear how misleading it is to highlight one positive aspect while ignoring the rest of the supply chain.

A similar concept is true for the term ‘’pinkwashing’’ and ‘’rainbow-washing’’. The former is a term coined in the 90s to describe a specific marketing strategy that involved declaring one’s company commitment in the battle against breast cancer, with the mere goal of economic profit. Through the years it has however acquired a broader meaning, and it now denotes all practices that exploit feminist and women-empowering themes for commercial purposes.

Rainbow-washing, on the other hand, refers to the identification with the LGBQT+ movement’s causes for selling a progressive image of themselves and profiting off of, literally, rainbow-coloured products praising ‘’gay pride’’.

Green Deal and the rush for a greener image

The active recent discussions about the European Green Deal, a plan which aims at zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, by employing 100 billion euros per year, has put much more attention on transitioning to a greener economy.

In this context, even an energy giant like the Italian multinational Eni, which extracts and trades fossil fuels, and is also accused of many environmental disasters, has tried renewing its image.

Last January, Eni was accused by the Italian antitrust authority AGCM for misleading advertising, for which it had to pay a 5 million fine. The incriminated ad was about ENIdiesel+, a product described as ‘’bio, green and renewable’’, which ‘’reduces gas emissions up to 40%’’, not supported by factual evidence.
If we look at the company’s data, in 2019 alone 73 million euros were spent in advertising and communication strategies, which is half of what Eni is willing to spend overall on circular economy until 2023. In the meantime, fossil fuels remain the core business of the corporation.

If this wasn’t upsetting enough, the hypocrisy reaches its peak with the decision of making Eni itself the trainer of Italian teachers, with a view to the introduction of a new subject in schools, called ‘’sustainable development’’. In November 2019, Italy was the first country to make education about climate change compulsory in schools of all levels, but is this the right way to do it?

The political aspect

Another important issue comes up when talking about brand activism. It is not realistic nor fair to put the responsibility on consumers to do extensive research in everything they buy in order to make conscious choices. This is especially true for the lower classes, which cannot afford to spend more time and money on more ethical choices. Is there even such a concept as ‘’ethical consumer’’ under capitalism?

‘’Voting with your money’’ in favor of the practices and instances that you second will never have a big and immediate impact as we would like to believe. We are turning the attention away from those who are responsible and are holding substantial power: actions like boycotting are not effective if companies are being subsidized by governments, which should be the ones to impose stricter regulations.
Furthermore, this approach confines political action to individual initiative, which eludes the collective and public dimension that is intrinsic to it.


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