A guide to fashion’s colourwashing problem

Bec Oakes 17 June 2021

In trying to paper over systemic issues, fashion brands have come under attack for 'colourwashing'—here's a guide on what it means

Every June like clockwork, brands change their logos and fill their stores with multi-coloured displays and products emblazoned with “Love is Love” for Pride month. But, while this appears to be supporting the LGBT+ community, not all follow up with any meaningful action. This is known as rainbow-washing and is one of the many ways brands mislead shoppers, communicating values that aren’t actually put into practice.

Colourwashing refers to a practice in which companies use unsubstantiated claims to market their products to environmentally and socially conscious consumers. It is particularly prevalent within the fashion industry where brands commercialise the social justice and environmental movements they see consumers caring about. On the Common Threads podcast, ethical fashion advocate Ruth MacGilp says: “People shop with their values now but brands haven’t changed theirs. They’ve just changed the way they communicate them.”

"People shop with their values now but brands haven’t changed theirs. They’ve just changed the way they communicate them"

This guide explores the different colourwashing practices commonly used within fashion and how to differentiate between socially conscious brands and those that just pretend to be.

Greenwashing

 A keyboard with one key saying 'greenwashing'

Perhaps the best-known example; greenwashing occurs when brands present themselves to be more environmentally friendly than they actually are. For example, a brand may create an eco-conscious clothing line whilst simultaneously continuing to produce hundreds of new, unsustainable collections.

H&M’s conscious collection is “created with a little extra consideration for the planet [and] at least 50 per cent of each piece is made from sustainable materials like organic cotton or recycled polyester.” However, as of 3 June, H&M’s women’s site has almost 9000 products of which only 1470 are “conscious”—less than 20 per cent of the overall offering. On top of this, the brand gives limited information about what they deem to be a “sustainable” material and the concept of sustainability doesn’t bring into account the impact of the supply chain or treatment of garment workers.

Pinkwashing

Sign on a pile of clothes saying 'no child labour'

Brands are accused of pinkwashing when they promote feminist values whilst concealing business practices that exploit women. This is particularly common within fast fashion, where brands promote female empowerment yet use sweatshops to produce their clothing. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that approximately 80 per cent of workers being exploited by such practices are women—a direct contradiction to the feminist image these brands present to the public.

Earlier this year, Pretty Little Thing released a collection of slogan t-shirts for International Women’s Day emblazoned with the likes of “girls supporting girls” and “empowered,” and donated the proceeds to women’s charity, Girls Inc. However, in recent years, the Boohoo retail group, of which Pretty Little Thing is a member, has faced allegations of using slave labour, paying garment workers far less than minimum wage. There’s a certain irony to fast-fashion companies creating IWD collections when they profit off the very exploitation the day was created to beat.

"The Boohoo retail group, of which Pretty Little Thing is a member, has faced allegations of using slave labour"

Brownwashing

A Black woman holding a Black Power sign at a protest

Brownwashing refers to when brands promote themselves as supporting BIPOC but don’t implement anti-racist and BIPOC empowering policies into their company culture. Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, millions of black squares were posted on Instagram by both businesses and individuals in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, these squares are reduced to mere virtue signalling if a brand’s business practices don’t reflect the same sentiment.

In the wake of Floyd’s murder, Reformation announced that they would be making donations to a number of organisations supporting black communities. However, following the announcement, a former employee, Elle Santiago posted on Instagram describing a work culture embedded in racism, noting the discrimination she’d faced whilst working for the brand. With Santiago (amongst other employees) uncovering the company’s problem with racism, Reformation’s donation can be seen as an act of opportunism, using the situation to obtain appraisal by socially conscious followers.

Rainbow-washing

Rainbow lanyards

As previously mentioned, brands that employ rainbow-washing tactics appear to be supportive of the LGBT+ movement whilst not actually doing anything meaningful to support the community or employing such values in the company. And, it’s a much larger issue than you’d expect. According to Reboot Online, only 64 per cent of brands with Pride campaigns in 2019 donated any of the proceeds to LGBT+ causes.

Adidas has shown support for the LGBT+ community for a number of years, releasing Pride collections each June. However, it was also one of the major sponsors of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a country that imposes strict anti-LGBT+ laws on its citizens. There is a fundamental disconnect between the brand’s messaging and its actions, portraying its Pride merchandise as just a money-making ploy.

Daz Skubich is non-binary and one of the founders of Game Assist, a multimedia project focused on liberation, representation and accessibility in the video games industry. They say, “Rainbow-washing can sometimes feel like a slap in the face. Clothing brands will don our colours for a month whilst simultaneously kicking us out of their changing rooms for not ‘passing.’ Even brands that donate some of their profits to LGBT charities will manufacture pride merchandise in countries where it is illegal to be gay. It’s all performative.”

"Rainbow-washing can sometimes feel like a slap in the face"

What can we do?

Colourwashing can make it difficult for consumers to make the right choices. It’s on us to do our research and decide whether a brand’s marketing and true values align. Becoming familiar with common colourwashing techniques can help. Look out for brands that use environmental or social justice buzzwords without discussing what they mean or make vague claims that aren’t backed up by concrete evidence. Brands may also emphasise one initiative whilst failing to address all areas of impact, using one positive move to divert attention away from other harmful practices.

Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to help. Good On You gives ratings to brands based on their impact on the planet, people and animals, considering everything from commitments to reducing pollution to gender equality. This offers a good starting point for researching companies, separating truly conscious brands from those that pretend, allowing us to shop with our values without fear of being misled.

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