Pinkwashing: the other side of modern feminism

By July 13, 2023 Digital Stories

Everyone will have heard of greenwashing, which is the kind of communication implemented by some companies to show an image of eco-sustainability and interest in environmental issues in order to hide behaviors that are exactly the opposite of what they preach.

A quite similar behavior is that of the so-called "pinkwashing", a kind of token feminism whose main purpose is to sell. Thus, it involves the promotion of services and products as if they were designed to enhance issues related to women's respect and equality, even though equal opportunity policies are lacking in the company.

Pinkwashing is therefore a very controversial topic and attracts fierce criticism of those who engage in it. Let us find out together how the practice originated and how it operates today.

What is pinkwashing

For years now, the color rose has become a symbol of women's empowerment, and many of the feminist struggles make extensive use of it. Often they are simply of opaque marketing operations to wink at a section of the public more sensitive to certain issues and to gain a return on image.

Clothing brands offering t-shirts with phrases related to "girl power" and faces of female figures symbolic of freedom exploited to make commerce are a symptom of an increasingly serial feminism that uses objects of all kinds colored pink to honor the feminist cause.

This controversial and multifaceted phenomenon has been renamed pinkwashing, an expression derived from the union of the English words pink e whitewashing. The term thus refers to the whole set of less than genuine marketing strategies that espouse the feminist cause by promoting a product with the aim of capturing the interest of consumers more devoted to such issues. Of course, such commitment to the world of women is purely cosmetic and is done only to boost sales.

It is a captatio benevolentiae aimed at economic profit, the brand reputation and the desire to ennoble the company's image. All this is done to conceal questionable corporate policies hidden behind the hypocrisy of an all-pink world.

How pinkwashing came about

The concept of pinkwashing developed in the wake of the greenwashing which instead flaunts a feigned sensitivity to environmental issues, again with the aim of having an image and economic payoff. The term was devised by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, and in the early 2000s the word was adapted to the issue of fighting breast cancer.

Precisely it was Barbara Brenner, a member of the Breast Cancer Association, to coin the phrase pinkwashing to refer to the marketing campaigns and advertising activities of various brands that exploit the theme to push consumers to prefer their products by deflecting attention from the poor quality of the materials.

Incentivizing preference toward the brand was to be a small pink bow on the products, already a symbol of the fight against breast cancer. Since then, the pink ribbon culture, resulting from embezzlement always aimed at financial gain.

In fact, in 1991 it was the American Charlotte Haley, a breast cancer patient, to choose the pink ribbon. The woman sewed peach pink bows to which she tied a postcard to denounce the scarcity of government funding to fight the disease.

The initiative was noticed by a cosmetics company that offered to buy the bows, but Ms. Haley declined the offer. However, this did not stop these investors from copying the idea, changing the shade of pink and thus originating the culture of the pink bow as an emblem of the fight against breast cancer.

When Barbara Brenner came up with the word pinkwashing she also launched a campaign called "Think before you pink" to push consumers to approach such marketing operations with more awareness and critical sense and businesses to ensure more transparency on the subject.

Pinkwashing in today's society

Today the phenomenon of pinkwashing is quite widespread, especially among multinational corporations and large companies that mostly belong to the mainstream market and fast production. The issues covered are diverse and all related to the feminist universe and the topic of thewomen's emancipation.

One of the most popular themes is that of the commodity feminism, an apparent and facade feminism, according to which brands only ostensibly espouse the values of body positivity, and then continue to propagate homologated standards of beauty and other gender stereotypes.

Sometimes the term pinkwashing has also been used for cases involving the LGBTQ+ community, although the expression has been coined rainbow washing in reference to the rainbow flag that represents the people of this community.

Examples of pinkwashing

One of the most egregious examples of pinkwashing involved KFC, an American fried chicken chain. The company in 2010 formed a partnership with Komen, an association committed to the fight against breast cancer. For the occasion, the brand had colored its chicken baskets pink to embrace the noble cause, raising up to $4 million to be donated to the association.

The problem is that KFC had already from the beginning made such a donation, and the gesture highlighted how it was only a marketing strategy and not the concrete social commitment of a company that produces a certainly unhealthy food.

Another case of pinkwashing and rainbow washing occurred in 2018. To be involved is Primark, a major low-cost fashion brand that for Pride Pride Month launched a collection called precisely Pride. The proceeds were to be donated to the LGBTQ+ rights association Stonewall. The fuss was later raised when it was discovered that the clothing line was manufactured in Turkey and Myanmar, countries where LGBTQ+ communities are discriminated against.

In fact, phenomena such as pinkwashing and rainbow washing not only affect major international businesses and companies, but also the political sphere. In some countries, the aim is to clean up one's reputation by deflecting attention from questionable positions. It is thus a way to gain more support by showing that they are sensitive to women and LGBTQ+ citizens.

A very obvious example is the path taken by Israel which in recent years has leaned toward a clear gay-friendly approach, opening up to the LGBTQ+ community. It is certainly a bold move, considering that the Middle East territories do not approve of LGBTQ+ rights, but on closer inspection such a choice does not collide with a conflicted Israeli situation in perpetual struggle.

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