A portmanteau of the words "pink" and "whitewashing" (in the figurative sense), pinkwashing is a derogatory term describing the practice of cause marketing, with specific reference to the cause of either gay rights or breast cancer awareness/research.
Accusations of pinkwashing have become especially widespread with reference to breast cancer in recent years. Since the 1980s a breast cancer awareness/research charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has worked to make the color pink and the pink ribbon a symbol of the battle to defeat breast cancer. Komen has not been shy about partnering with for-profit corporations as part of numerous pink ribbon campaigns.
Komen licenses its (trademarked) pink ribbon symbol to the corporations for use in their advertising, and in exchange the corporations donate a small percentage of the proceeds back to Komen. Although this practice is pitched as a win-win by supporters, critics have called this practice "pinkwashing" because corporations have an opportunity to leverage customers' sympathy for breast cancer awareness to dramatically increase sales and profits while only returning a small fraction of the profits to charity.
A particularly egregious example occurred in October 2012 when, as part of "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" the NFL painted huge pink ribbons at the center of all of its fields and NFL players wore pink wristbands, pink waist towels, and pink shoes. At the same time, an incessant barrage of messages directed fans and television viewers to visit the NFL online store and buy pink NFL merchandise, with the promise that "a portion of the proceeds will be donated to support breast cancer awareness."
It turned out that the NFL pledged to donate only ten percent of the profit from the sale of these items. Read that again. Not ten percent of the proceeds, but ten percent of the profit. This means that the NFL kept 90 percent of the extra profit it gained through association with breast cancer awareness and the pink ribbon iconography. That's pinkwashing in action for you.
Ironically, Komen itself has recently been accused of pinkwashing...itself. These accusations were made in light of revelations that Komen's executives were being paid high six-figure salaries and that, despite the "for the cure" name, only a tiny fraction of donations were actually being spent on researching a cure for breast cancer, with the majority of funds spent on marketing (ie "awareness") and "administrative costs."
The lesson is, and this is incredibly obvious, but if you really want to support breast cancer research, don't just purchase some commercial product with a pink ribbon on the package, call it a day, and feel good about yourself. If you actually care about having your money do some good, use it to make a donation directly to a charity you have verified is significantly involved in funding actual breast cancer research and not just "awareness."