Rainbow-washing: a stain that resurfaces during Pride Month

June 28 2021 - Calum Palmer, Research Team Leader & SDG Lead

June is the time of the year where people all around the world celebrate themselves and each other in all their unapologetic queerness. It is an important month of self-expression, self-love, and self-reflection.

It is, also, the month where the corporate world strategically takes advantage of rainbows - the pillar of Pride - for marketing purposes, enticing unsuspected customers into purchasing a seemingly Pride-orientated product. This is known as 'rainbow-washing' and is an issue that resurfaces every June. As we come to the end of the month-long event, we will explore the importance and sentiment behind Pride and how companies may use the rainbow for capital profit rather than social purpose.

What is 'Pride' and why is it important?

Pride, also known as 'Gay Pride' or 'LGBT Pride', is a celebration in June dedicated to acknowledging, supporting, and showing solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual & others) communities who have long been (and still are) discriminated against at all corners of the globe. The first Pride parade occurred on 28 June 1970 - on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City. While the fight for LGBTQIA+ civil rights began well before Stonewall, it was an important catalyst for the progression of the movement. Over the following years, social discord and demonstrations have resulted in political and societal changes, from the World Health Organisation (WHO) declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness in 1992, to the WHO doing the same for transgenderism in 2019; from the implantation of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004 to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in England and Wales in 2014.

More key dates in LGBTQIA+ history over the last 70 years can be found here.

What is 'rainbow-washing' and why is it an issue?

'Rainbow-washing' can be defined as "people, governments, and corporations that don't do tangible work to support LGBTQIA+ communities at any other time during the year to slap a rainbow on top of something in the month of June." It is like other types of 'washing', such as 'green-washing' and 'pink-washing', which are designed to condition consumers into thinking that the act of purchasing a particular product or from a particular source is contributing to environmental, social, or political change. Ultimately, it is just smart marketing. It is essentially the performative act of LGBTQIA+ 'allyship', not true allyship.

A famous form of rainbow-washing manifests in the form of a rainbow logo. Many companies will alter their logos during Pride month to incorporate the rainbow flag, applying the illusion of supporting the movement without contributing any resources to LGBTQIA+ charities or causes. Some companies go as far as applying the rainbow while also donating to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians or public officials, such as Republican Senators who are actively blocking the US Equality Act from becoming law.

Additionally, corporations may change their Western-focused logo on their website and social media platforms while missing out their Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and African branches. These parts of the world have far fewer accepting views on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people, with many having laws actively opposing their very existence. Here is a map from the Human Dignity Trust highlighting jurisdictions which criminalises LGBTQIA+ peoples.

Out of the jurisdictions depicted:

  • 72 criminalise private, consensual, same-sex sexual activity between men.
  • 44 criminalise private consensual sexual activity between women.
  • 11 impose the death penalty, or the death penalty is at least a possibility, for private, consensual same-sex sexual activity.
  • 15 criminalise the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people.

There are also corporations which to appear to be showing solidarity in the West, but do not show the same support in the areas of the world where LGBTQIA+ people have been criminalised. It is, ultimately, a strategic move to maintain a global consumer base, masked as "cultural sensitivity". When profit comes up against people, profit often wins. More information here.

Then, there are the companies which do it right. Nike is a great example, having been a long-term supporter of LGBTQIA+ peoples. In celebration of Pride Month, Nike has recommended $500,000, through grants of $25,000 each, to 20 organisations that are advocating for and advancing the LGBTQIA+ community. These organisations include the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA World), the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and LGBT SportSafe.

Other examples include:

  • Levi's 2021 Pride Collection - 100% of net proceeds from the collection is going to OutRight Action International, which works to advance human LGBTQIA+ rights around the world
  • The Skittles brand - produced and marketed by Mars Wrigley, Skittles released its limited-edition rainbow-less 'Pride Pack', replacing its 'Taste the Rainbow' slogan with 'Only One Rainbow Matters' during Pride month. $1 from each pack is being donated to GLAAD, up to $100,000
  • Old Navy's 'Project We' initiative - $1 million is being donated to Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which supports youth arts programs in communities across the US.

More examples can be found here.

While we have come a long way in the fight for equality, we still have a long way to go. Rainbow-washing is a very damaging and misleading form of marketing that stumps this fight and benefits only the money-makers. Supporting LGBTQIA+ friendly companies, on the other hand, which actively engage with queer communities through projects and financial means, is an incredibly potent way to acknowledge and empower some of the world's most marginalised groups.








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