Colour Washing in Marketing and PR
Today, 71% of consumers prefer to buy from companies that are aligned with their values. What’s more, two out of three millennials have boycotted a company due to its stance on an issue they care about.
We’ve talked before about why transparency matters in PR. With consumers becoming more ethically and socially conscious, there’s a growing demand for sustainability and equity. Brands react by communicating and marketing their values. However, some claim to uphold certain value—like diversity and inclusion or sustainability—without any evidence for them.
Caption: A white person and Black person face away from the camera holding their hands up with peace signs in the air.
In this post, we’ll define colour washing so you can be aware as a consumer and practice ethical marketing in your business.
What is colour washing?
Colour washing gives the appearance of transparency without any real merit. It’s the practice of marketing values without the substantiated evidence needed to uphold those values. As Sustainable Fashion Matters puts it, colour washing is:
“an umbrella term for the profit-driven practice of companies and brands to deceptively communicate unsubstantiated values in products and services in order to appeal and market them better to socially and environmentally aware consumers.”
Colour washing presents itself in a number of ways, including “outright deception, subtle advertising, and often as ambitious claims without full transparency,” said Solene Rauturier, writer at Good on You.
Omitting the truth, as they say, is still lying. Aside from the unethical implications of being deceitful, lying is incredibly detrimental to your brand’s image.
Journalist Anna Turns explains: “Businesses need to be open and honest from the outset… I’ve seen companies use the words ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ without any proof and it’s essential that you are walking the walk as well as talking the talk.”
“Without evidence of traceability and accountability, media coverage could potentially backfire and damage your reputation.” Anna Turns, journalist, Wicked Leeks
So here’s a good rule of thumb: if you can’t back up your claims, don’t make them. Accountability and traceability matter.
What are the different types of colour washing?
Once you recognize colour washing, you’ll start to notice signs of empty claims. Keep an eye out for these three common types of colour washing.
Caption: A person holding two sandy plastic cups with eco labels.
Definition: Greenwashing is when brands make unsubstantiated claims about their commitment to sustainability. Often, brands will create a product or collection of “eco-friendly” products, without adjusting their supply chain (ex: switching to plastic-free materials) or addressing problematic workers’ issues (ex: ensuring factory safety or providing living wages).
H&M is notorious for greenwashing. They have one alleged environmental-focused collection, but have severely unsustainable practices. They continue to produce 3 billion garments of clothing each year. For their Conscious Choice line, they claim to use “a little extra consideration for the planet.”
They may include a percentage of recyclable materials, but do they use organic cotton to protect biodiversity? Do they use synthetic materials made with petroleum-based plastics?
When you see terms like “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” take them with a grain of salt. Remember, there are no clear cut definitions for what different “eco” terms actually mean when it comes to marketing and PR.
Caption: Three female presenting BIPOC people are sitting at a conference table having a meeting.
Definition: Brownwashing is when a company attempts to look “supportive of Black, Brown, Indigenous and People of Color while not implementing anti-racist and/or BIPoC empowering circumstances into the own business.” ELMA TO EDIT
One example is a brand having stock photos of diverse team members of all genders and backgrounds on their website, only to have a leadership board filled with only white men. Or brands sharing #BlackLivesMatter products, but having racist and hostile work environments for employees of colour.
In 2020, Amazon put a Black Lives Matter banner on its home page, yet the company has commercial partnerships with police forces, including providing the software Rekognition which disproportionately misidentifies individuals of colour.
Efforts for diversity, equity, and inclusion must go beyond making a statement or sharing a one liner on your website.
Caption: A group of people walking across the street on a rainbow-coloured crossing.
Definition: Rainbowwashing is when a brand wants to appear LGTBQIA+ friendly, but its business practices are anything but.
We’ve all seen the rainbow logos and banners. If a company only shares LGTBQIA+ content once a year, there’s a good chance we’re not getting the full story. Between underpaying queer talent and having an unsafe environment for queer staff, companies are not always as welcoming as their #PrideMonth posts say they are. Rainbowwashing is a way for brands to divert attention from what’s happening in their company culture.
Start to notice colourwashing as you shop online or scroll on Instagram. You’ll be surprised to find how common it is.
If you want to stand out as a truly ethical business, always make sure you share claims that can be substantiated.