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A‑Z of social movement and greenwashing

There’s no limit to the abilities of the world’s big corporations nowadays - not only will they save the bees, they’re also going to end racism and bring about a vegan revolution. Or at least that’s what they would have you believe.

In this article we explore greenwashing, woke washing and social movement washing by multinational corporations.

We give a number of examples of companies publicly claiming to be committed to a social or environmental cause, while actually in reality carrying out activities which are doing harm to that very same cause.

If we believed everything we read in corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, we could sleep soundly in the knowledge that the world’s richest and most powerful corporations are taking care of the world’s major problems – no need to wait for governments to get their acts together, or for people to take political action.

Long gone are the days when companies just produced consumer goods. Now we’re sold a more compassionate world. We’re expected to unbox equality, to click and collect social justice.

Sadly, our research shows there’s significant reason to believe that what companies say about their commitment to social and environmental causes isn’t always an accurate reflection of what they actually do. 

In fact many companies are contributing to the very problems they claim to be working to solve.

This A-Z looks at a few of the major examples of ‘washing’ going on today including greenwashing in fashion, food and sport.

What is social movement or greenwashing?

Greenwashing (and other similar terms) stems from the original term ‘whitewashing’. 

Whitewashing involves covering something up by putting another more pleasant layer on top. Notably, it doesn’t get rid of whatever is underneath. 

This is at the heart of ‘washing’ claims - whatever dodgy activities the company was participating in to begin with haven’t necessarily stopped. The only difference is that it’s been slightly concealed by nicer activities sold to us by marketing and PR teams.

A to Z of different types of corporate washing

What is beewashing?

Companies claiming to be supporting bees, while actually being uninformed and causing significant damage to bee populations.

Example: M&S announced bee project that spelled chaos for bees

In April 2021 M&S announced that it planned to release 30 million bees into the British countryside as part of its 'Farming with Nature' programme, intended to “boost pollinator biodiversity”.

This led Chief Executive of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Gill Perkins, to accuse M&S of “beewashing at its most blatant”.

It immediately became clear that the company had not really done its homework when it came to actually supporting bees. Conservationists warned the plan could damage ecosystems and deprive wild pollinators of food sources, and that in fact increasing numbers of honeybees could threaten biodiversity because they out-compete for example bumblebees and red mason bees. 

Head of conservation charity Buglife, Matt Shardlow, said “They are actually ending up doing something that may damage the environment”. 

Ecologist and pollinator advisor Steven Falk told The Guardian “I would like to see it held to account for the needs of wild pollinators, which means more habitat and fewer hives.”

M&S was marked down in our Animal Rights category for lacking an adequate bee welfare policy - it sold own brand honey but didn’t provide any clear information about the welfare standards it expected of beekeepers. Bee mutilation and the killing of drones, colonies or brood to ensure maximum honey yield is common in honey production and M&S had no clear policies prohibiting these.

What is bluewashing?

Definition 1) Bluewashing can mean using UN sustainability initiatives to appear socially and environmentally conscious, while actually doing little to pursue the UN goals.

Example: Nestlé promotes involvement in UN initiative despite history of violating UN principles

One paper analysed to what extent companies considered to be sustainability ‘leaders’ by the UN Global Compact reported on “significant negative events” in their sustainability reports. It found that more than 80% of identified events were not reported or only partially reported.

As far back as 2005 the Transnational Institute wrote a letter criticising “the high profile participation of Nestlé in the Global Compact, even as the company continues its long history of violating UN principles and undermining regulatory efforts”.

It’s called ‘bluewashing’ after the colour of the UN flag. 

Definition 2) Bluewashing can also mean a company claiming to be more ‘digitally ethical’ than it actually is.

Bluewashing has also been used to refer to “the malpractice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about, or implementing superficial measures in favour of, the ethical values and benefits of digital processes, products, services, or other solutions in order to appear more digitally ethical than one is.”

This is meant to, for example, assure consumers that AI digital technology, which people might be suspicious of, is safe and ethical.

Example: Clearview AI markets itself as ‘Trusted by Law Enforcement’ yet fined £17m by ICO

US facial recognition technology company Clearview AI promotes itself on its website as “An intelligence platform trusted by law enforcement.” 

However, in November 2021 it faced a £17m fine from the UK government-funded Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) after it was revealed that it had committed “serious breaches” of data protection law. 

The ICO said its facial recognition database was “likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK and may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from publicly available information online, including social media platforms."

What is carbonwashing?

Companies spreading misleading or unsubstantiated claims about their carbon impacts or initiatives.

Some companies talk about carbon as if they are doing everything possible to reduce emissions, when that’s not actually the case. 

One paper says companies are carbonwashing when they do things such as:

  • Publishing incomplete carbon data. This could give a misleading impression of what its emissions are.
  • Inconsistently measuring their carbon data. This can give the impression that they’re doing better than they actually are when it comes to reducing emissions.
  • Relying too much on carbon offsets without taking other actions 

Example: Nestlé can’t keep its record straight on carbon

Nestlé states different things in different places. Its Science-Based Targets Initiative target measures its reduction against a baseline of 2019. However, in Nestlé’s own publications its reductions are compared to ‘business-as-usual’ scenarios instead of 2019. 

Nestlé also claims it won’t use offsetting towards its reduction targets, but some of its individual brands claim carbon neutrality on the basis of offsetting. 

It doesn’t discuss major emissions sources in the discussion around its target, and doesn’t seem to have a proper plan about how it’s going to reach it. 

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company seeks to “appear greener, more sustainable, or ecologically friendlier than it actually is” (Delmas and Burbano, quoted in Floridi).

Example: BP claiming to prioritise renewable energy, when it barely invests in any

In December 2019, environmental legal charity Client Earth launched a complaint against BP over claims of greenwashing. It accused BP of misleading consumers and giving them a false impression of their environmental record through advertisements adopting an environmental focus and discussing low-carbon energy initiatives.

Client Earth lawyers contest the claims made in BP’s advertising campaign regarding its commitment to low-carbon and renewable energy. Whilst BP advertise a keen focus on investing in environment-friendly energy, the fact remains that 96% of their annual capital expenditure is spent on non-renewable oil and gas. Going by their own figures, BP is investing $500 million a year in low-carbon initiatives, less than 4% of overall investment.

Client Earth Lawyer Sophie Marjanaca argues

“due to BP’s considerable on-going investment in non-renewable energy, advertising a focus on renewable energy investments gives a false impression to the consumer. This is a clear case of greenwashing; BP present themselves as prioritising renewable energy, despite the vast majority of investment going towards non-renewables.”

Learn how to take action on greenwash in our consumer's guide to greenwashing article.

What is pinkwashing?

1) Claiming to support LGBT+ rights, while actually being involved in activities that disadvantage the LGBT+ community.

Example: Gilead Pharmaceuticals funds Pride while selling extortionately priced HIV prevention drugs

An article by Vox media provides one clear example when it comes to companies involved in LGBT+ pinkwashing. It highlighted how in 2018 US-headquartered pharmaceutical company Gilead, which also operates in the UK,  sponsored official Pride events in cities including New York in the US and Cork in Ireland.

Gilead made the pill Trivada for PrEP, the medication which reduces the risk of contracting HIV from sex. Yet, without insurance PrEP costs $2,110.99 per month. People within the LGBT+ community who most need the drug “often cannot afford insurance that covers it”.

The Vox article continues that if a generic version of the pill were produced access to it could be greatly increased, but “Gilead won’t release its patent”.


2) A company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products containing chemicals that are linked to the disease.

Example: Estée Lauder runs breast cancer awareness campaigns while selling products that may increase risk of cancer

Breast Cancer Action’s 2017 Think Before You Pink campaign targeted Estée Lauder, accusing it of Pinkwashing. 

It demanded “that Estée Lauder stop conducting pink ribbon promotional campaigns that spread empty awareness” and “pressured the company to acknowledge that chemicals in their products may actually increase the risk of breast cancer.”

What is purplewashing?

Using discourses on ‘female empowerment’, while actually being involved in activities that disadvantage women.

Brands that include feminist discourse in their marketing strategy are promoting “advertisements that celebrate female empowerment”, also defined as femvertising.

Example: Gillette jumps on Me-Too bandwagon while selling more expensive products to women

In 2019 Gillette released a video advertisement which featured clips of a man groping a woman, and another speaking over a woman in a board meeting, followed by other men calling each other out on the sexism instead of watching passively.

The Guardian described the advertisement as “basically one big long high five to men who don’t assault people.” 

As Gillette tried to sell its product by appealing to the public’s support for the #MeToo movement, its parent company continued to profit from selling women more expensive razors than men. Both Gillette (razors for men) and Venus (for women) were owned by Procter & Gamble - Gillette’s most expensive razor was priced at £14.99, whereas Venus’s cost £25.

Fascinatingly, it was Gillette that introduced the first razor marketed specifically to women in 1915.

This marked the start of women shaving - as Gilllette sought to expand its target audience to women to boost sales. It was advertised as “the safest and most sanitary method of acquiring a smooth underarm”.

So while Gillette tried to promote its products using appeals to gender equality, in reality the company actually continues to sell more expensive items to women than men, and is in fact a major reason why a woman not shaving her underarms is considered unfeminine or even unsanitary to begin with (when the same is not expected of men).

What is redwashing?

Redwashing is “the deception of the general public by government and industry in trying to cover up their theft of indigenous peoples lands, natural resources and cultural riches by pretending that they are acting in the best interests of the native peoples.” (Definition)

Example: Rio Tinto promotes partnerships with Indigenous communities, despite legacy of conflict with Indigenous communities

According to one paper Rio Tinto, the largest mining and metals company in Canada, frames most of its CSR around “discourses of partnership, consultation, and community with local Indigenous communities”. It published a “Statement of Commitment for Indigenous Peoples”.

Yet, Rio Tinto has faced multiple lawsuits filed against it by Indigenous groups. For example, Rio Tinto had a decades-long conflict with The Innu of Uashat mak Mani-utenam and Matimekush-Lac John in Quebec, who claimed the company displaced people from their land, destroyed the environment and failed to provide financial compensation.

This could be seen as redwashing - companies framing themselves as “good corporate citizens” while overlooking more harmful impacts the fossil fuel industry has had upon Indigenous people.

What is rainbow-washing?

Corporations that use the rainbow symbol or colours, despite being involved in activities that are damaging to LGBT+ community.

See also Pinkwashing above. 

The term ‘rainbow-washing’ seems to get used quite often just to refer to companies that put rainbows all over their marketing during Pride month and then don’t do anything else to boost LGBT+ rights for the rest of the year. 

Example: Walmart website covered in rainbows, yet helps fund lawmakers who push anti-trans legislation

Walmart is a major promoter of Pride. Its website features a ‘Pride and Joy’ section which sells rainbow coloured party supplies, jewellery, clothes and even cereal.

It says “We welcome everyone to be their authentic selves - always. Let the unique you shine through!”

Despite this apparent support for Pride, it’s faced criticism for its financial activities when it comes to the LGBT+ community. 

Since 2019 Walmart is said to have donated nearly half a million dollars to politicians who have faced criticism from the Human Rights Campaign (a leading LGBT+ organisation).

It’s said to have donated to 19 state lawmakers in the US who helped pass a bill in April 2021 that outlaws gender-affirming treatment for trans youth.

What is sharewashing?

Appealing to ideas of ‘sharing’ and community in order to sell products or services, in a way that blurs the commercial and for-profit nature of the business.

As the World Economic Forum neatly put it, “Who doesn’t want to conjure up notions of community and cooperation?”

Example: Uber presents itself as a company in the sharing economy while paying executive $12m

Uber is one of the “most touted examples of the sharing economy”. Its website says it is “helping to build resources that connect users and make life easier for people”. 

Sharing economy platforms, from Airbnb to BlaBlaCar, are said to enable access to “otherwise idle capacity”, for example, an empty car seat on a long journey, an apartment when the owner’s abroad, or even a few hours when you’re not working that could be spent doing rides with Uber.

According to one paper,

“platform operators [...] make use of sharewashing (deliberately or unconsciously) to blur the commercial character of their platforms in an attempt to improve brand image, attract customers, and hence, to increase revenues”. 

And yet in reality some of these companies' services shouldn’t really be classed as sharing at all, or should only be described as “pseudo-sharing”.

There is potential for real sharing to take place when it comes to the sharing economy, for example through the development of food delivery cooperatives supported by the government - but when CEOs of companies like Uber are receiving $12m per year, it’s unlikely the change is going to come from the corporate sphere…

As one article states, “Sharewashing does more than just misrepresent things like renting, working, and surveilling as ‘sharing’. It does more than just stretch and contort the meaning of the word ‘sharing’ until it practically loses all meaning. It also disables the very promise of an economy based on sharing by stealing the very language we use to talk about it, turning a crucial response to our impending ecological crisis into another label for the very same economic logic which got us into that crisis in the first place”.

What is sportswashing?

Sportswashing involves a company using sports to improve its reputation, distracting attention away from other negative activities it’s involved in.

It’d be easy to extrapolate a list of companies which use sports to sell their product, even though their product is actually something many athletes wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. For example Coca-Cola sponsoring countless sporting events including the Premier League, yet getting famously rebuffed by Ronaldo who told fans he drank “agua” (water) instead.

Example: Saudi Arabia accused of buying Newcastle United Football Club to distract attention away from human rights abuses

In 2021 Saudi Arabia took over Newcastle United in a £300m deal. 

Technically it was bought by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), but according to the BBC PIF is really just a state savings account for the Saudi Arabian government. 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claim that the move could be seen as sportwashing - that Saudi Arabia is using sports as a mask for things it wants people to forget about. 

Several companies have received hundreds of millions of pounds from PIF, including Disney, Facebook, Starbucks and Uber.

“Football clubs being purchased for the purpose of trying to distract from serious human rights violations isn’t confined to Newcastle, and sportswashing isn’t confined to football - but the Saudi takeover has obviously brought the issue of human rights and football governance into sharp relief.

“Despite assurances about a supposed separation from the Saudi state, ownership [...] is now very much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government.

“As the season progresses we hope fans, players and Newcastle United backroom staff will look seriously at the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and be prepared to speak out about the jailing of people like Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, whose 20-year sentence for tweeting was upheld just hours before the Newcastle deal went through.”

Take Action: Visit the Free Sadhan website

What is veganwashing?

When companies promote their products through appeals to compassion for other animals, when that same company is actually causing animal suffering.

When companies that profit every day from animal slaughter launch a vegan range and plaster it with buzzwords like “compassion”, we’re in veganwashing territory. 

Example: Shein claims to be animal-friendly but uses several animal products without welfare policies

In our guide to high street clothing last year, research on Shein showed that the brand boasted a “strictly no animal” policy on its website. 

In fact, SHEIN’s “strictly no animal” policy was found to be patently false as we discovered numerous animal-derived products sold on its site - clearly showing the brand intends to exploit Gen Z’s good intentions.

While it did not appear to use real leather or fur, we found items made from down, silk and wool, with no accompanying policies in relation to the sourcing of these materials.

The whole phenomenon of ‘washing’ comes from the original term whitewashing. 

Some definitions include:

  • To make something seem as if it has certain positive qualities when in fact this may not be true (Macmillan dictionary
  • An attempt to stop people finding out the true facts about a situation, or to make something bad seem acceptable by hiding the truth (Cambridge dictionary)
  • To hide crimes and vices, or to exonerate through biased presentation of evidence (Blackmer, 2019)
  • Hiding the unpleasant facts or truth about it in order to make it acceptable (Collins dictionary)
  • Means employed to conceal mistakes or faults, or attempt to clear reputation by concealing facts (Thompson, quoted in Inwood and Martin)

(In other contexts Whitewashing can also refer to pushing people of colour to the sidelines, for example hiring white actors for non-white film roles. Read more in the Reader's Digest article.)

What is wokewashing?

Wokewashing is a form of performative activism where corporations demonstrate their advocacy for a social cause through their marketing and simultaneously continue to harm the communities they ‘advocate’ for.

Example: Pepsi trivialises police brutality by inferring a can of Pepsi can solve police-protestor tensions

One example is Kendall Jenner’s controversial Pepsi commercial, which showed the company co-opting protest movements by featuring them in advert designed to boost sales, and not treating the issue of police brutality in the U.S. with the weight it deserves.

The tension between protestors and police was dissolved when Jenner handed over a coke can, demonstrating a bleak lack of sensitivity to the lived reality of Black Lives Matter activists.  

Read more about wokewashing in this Teen Vogue article.

Sticky notes with names of different types of social movement and greenwashing: carbon washing, pinkwashing, redwashing, sharewashing, sportswashing, veganwashing

How do you know if it’s ‘washing’?

We class something as ‘washing’ if it meets these criteria:

  1. The company self-promotes as very ‘progressive’ and active when it comes to a specific social movement
  2. This company is involved in activities or has some impacts that appear to be at odds with that same social movement
  3. It is not impossible to imagine that the company might be doing (1) in order to attract attention away from or mitigate bad publicity caused by (2)

Companies rarely admit to ‘washing’

We’ve left (3) above as quite broad, saying only “It is not impossible to imagine” that a company might be using a social movement in order to boost its reputation. 

Sometimes it seems pretty obvious - for example if a company caused a massive oil spillage and then ran a fundraiser for puffins affected by pollution a week later. 

But usually it’s harder to link the questionable activities the company’s involved in with the positive social justice movement message the company’s putting out.

Companies would be unlikely to ever publicly admit to using a social movement in order to distract attention away from problematic activities they are involved in.

What if the company thought it was doing good?

Some examples in this article feature companies that may have ‘thought they were doing good’ only to have ended up doing something damaging to the social or environmental cause they were trying to champion. 

In these instances, we’d still probably call it ‘washing’ if it was obvious that they’d not done their homework and seemed to just be wanting a quick publicity boost without actually considering what the impacts of their actions would be (e.g. see Beewashing).

Some companies might also think that even if overall they’re causing major problems for, for example, local communities or habitats, it’s still ethical for them to promote the fact they’ve donated some funds or done another type of action like this in support of the local communities or habitats. 

In these circumstances, we’d still call it ‘washing’ if the company overly emphasises the small positive things they’re doing while failing to pay due attention to the overall damaging impact of their activities (for example, see Redwashing).