Navigating the Controversial Waters of Pinkwashing in PR: Strategies, Accusations, and the Avon Controversy

10 mins read

Recently, in the previous post, we’re talking about greenwashing — when a company makes “sustainable”, “all-natural,” and “organic” claims although it’s anything but. Pinkwashing is similar. It’s when a company sticks a symbol pink breast cancer ribbon on its product or makes claims of donating to breast cancer charity organizations while actively producing, manufacturing, or selling products that provoke this serious illness.

Pinkwashing involves a company or organization promoting products or services as supporting breast cancer causes while potentially engaging in practices that contradict these altruistic claims. In this comprehensive article, we will delve into the concept of pinkwashing, explore responsible ways it can be used in public relations, address strategies for responding to false accusations, and discuss an illustrative example involving cosmetic giant Avon.

What Is Pinkwashing?

Pinkwashing, like its greenwashing counterpart, involves the deceptive use of marketing or public relations to create a positive image related to a cause—in this case, breast cancer awareness. Companies leverage the iconic pink ribbon and associated campaigns to imply support for the cause, often through the sale of specially branded products. 

The first use of “pinkwashing” is credited to Breast Cancer Action, an organization dedicated to combating breast cancer at the intersections of social and environmental justice. A riff on the term “whitewashing,” is defined as an attempt to conceal or dilute unpleasant facts. The controversy arises when companies sell products with a pink ribbon, symbolizing support for breast cancer charities while manufacturing or selling products with harmful ingredients.

What Is Not Pinkwashing?

Brands (or people, organizations) are not guilty of pinkwashing when they have true and good intentions. This can be established by their (corporate) policy and activities linked with the treatment of employees, the support they give to prevent cancer, a consistent range of communications throughout the year, support of the cancer charity and research organizations, etc. 

But even so, it is not clear cut and a campaign could be considered “OK” (so: no pinkwashing) if not all of the above conditions are met and there are other genuine intentions and activities.

The Avon Controversy: a Case Study

In the realm of cosmetics, Avon faced a significant pinkwashing controversy when it released a line of lipsticks purportedly supporting the fight against breast cancer. However, accusations arose that these lipsticks contained components linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

This incident underscored the risks associated with pinkwashing. Avon’s attempt to align its product with a charitable cause backfired as the very items intended to support breast cancer awareness were accused of potentially contributing to the problem they aimed to address. The controversy damaged Avon’s reputation and emphasized the importance of thorough scrutiny and transparency in cause-related marketing.

What are the Dangers of Suspecting ‘Pinkwashing’ Behaviors?

Let’s start with acknowledging the environmental and social consequences of such suspicions. If customers or prospects are misled to buy ‘fake’ organic products, they would be unintentionally harming the environment and endanger thir health (e.g. consuming products that, in reality, may put at risk their health or even worse — provoke cancer.)

If consumers support a company that sustainably innovates on one front, to disguise the wrongdoings in other areas of the business (e.g. using some harmful ingredients or offering some unhealthy procedures), they could be unconsciously aggravating problematic social issues.

From the point of view of the consumers, we would all agree that this behavior is morally wrong, but the dangers of ‘washing’ do not stop there. By saying that they are doing more than they actually are, brands are negatively affecting consumers’ perceptions of the company, leading to reputation damage. The reputation of the brand takes years to be built, and minutes to be destroyed. Ultimately, those changes in reputation will impact loyalty, trust, and overall performance.

Responsible Use of Pinkwashing in PR

If your marketing campaigns against cancer are all show and no action, when it comes to actually making a difference, you’re likely pinkwashing. Customers and community members are likely to be aware and become critical of your company. If they find your business is participating in the cause mostly or solely for your own benefit, be prepared to face some disapproval and well-deserved accusations.

The best way is to avoid pinkwashing from the beginning. But still, there are ways to use it responsibly in public relations:

1. Use the Pink Ribbon Responsibly

Authenticity is paramount. If a company is engaging in pinkwashing, it must genuinely commit to supporting breast cancer causes. This involves financial contributions, partnerships with reputable charities, and transparent communication about the company’s involvement.

2. Be Transparent About Your Fundraising

An important way to avoid pinkwashing or being accused of pinkwashing is to be honest about where the money is going. Spell out the portion of profits you will be donating and which organizations it will be going to and the initiatives it will be used to support.

Provide details on partnerships, donations, and how the company is actively contributing to the cause. Transparency builds trust and helps avoid accusations of insincerity.

3. Long-Term Engagement

Avoid one-off campaigns that may be perceived as opportunistic. Instead, demonstrate a long-term commitment to breast cancer awareness by engaging in sustained efforts, participating in relevant events, and consistently supporting charities over time.

The answer to ‘color washing’ is simple: be responsible, be transparent, and communicate accordingly. After all, regardless of the company’s size or purpose, any perceived ‘suspicious behavior’ will eventually come out to the public.

Also, to avoid accusations of pinkwashing, you can explore alternative strategies:

1. Direct Charitable Donations

Instead of tying contributions to product sales, companies can make direct charitable donations to reputable breast cancer organizations. This approach removes the ambiguity associated with cause-related marketing.

2. Employee Involvement

Showcase the company’s commitment to breast cancer awareness through employee involvement. Encourage staff participation in awareness events, fundraising activities, and volunteering efforts.

3. Education Initiatives

Take a proactive role in educating the public about breast cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment. Develop campaigns that provide valuable information and resources, demonstrating a genuine commitment to raising awareness.

Responding to False Accusations

When facing allegations of pinkwashing, companies can take the following steps to address the situation:

1. Investigate Thoroughly: Assess the accusations meticulously. Understand the specific claims and gather evidence to either substantiate or refute the allegations.

2. Transparent Communication: If the accusations are baseless, communicate transparently with the public. Provide evidence and data to counter false claims, reiterating the company’s authentic commitment to supporting breast cancer causes.

3. Corrective Actions: If there are valid concerns raised, take immediate corrective actions. This might involve adjusting marketing strategies, revisiting partnerships, or making additional contributions to breast cancer charities.


Pinkwashing remains a contentious strategy in public relations, requiring companies to navigate carefully between genuine support for breast cancer causes and accusations of insincerity. By adopting transparent communication, making authentic commitments, and taking corrective actions when necessary, companies can use pinkwashing responsibly. 

The Avon case serves as a stark reminder of the potential pitfalls and consequences associated with this strategy, urging companies to prioritize authenticity and social responsibility in their PR endeavors. In an era where consumers demand transparency and accountability, responsible engagement with cause-related marketing is crucial for long-term success.

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