Every June, companies all over the world change their logos to rainbows in celebration of Pride – a global celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community and their cultural, political, and environmental impact on the world.
During Pride month, our Instagram and LinkedIn feeds become colourful, speciality Pride products are launched, and visual merchandising displays celebrate the rainbow symbolism alongside supportive slogans. But without tangible actions and deep-rooted initiatives around businesses supporting the LGBTQIA+ community, there’s something problematic about these temporary brand updates, and it’s become recognised as “rainbow washing.
What is rainbow washing?
Rainbow washing is when a company uses LGBTQIA+ imagery and symbolism to promote their products or services, without actually supporting the community in any meaningful or evidence-backed way. This can include things like changing a company’s logo to a rainbow version, releasing rainbow-themed products, or running ads featuring LGBTQIA+ people. When companies rainbow wash, they are using the community as a marketing tool, without actually doing anything to help them; not treating them as equals, but more like a commodity, making it more difficult for the necessary changes needed to be made.
The problem with performative activism
Rainbow-washing facilitates people, governments, and corporations that don’t tangibly work to support LGBTQIA+ communities at any other time during the year to capitalise on the globally renowned Pride visuals and messaging throughout June and call it allyship.
The LGBTQIA+ community faces challenges and discrimination that persist beyond the confines of June, and their fight for equality and acceptance should not be reduced to a temporary trend or marketing opportunity. Performative activism can be misleading and damaging, as it creates an illusion of progress while diverting attention from the ongoing struggles faced byLGBTQIA+ individuals. It is important to distinguish between genuine support and mere tokenism. Allies should actively engage in efforts that promote inclusivity, such as supporting LGBTQIA+ -owned businesses, advocating for equal rights legislation, and amplifying LGBTQIA+ voices and experiences.
There are a number of examples
As with any marketing trend, there are many companies that have been called out for rainbow washing. In 2019, US fast food chain Chick-fil-A was accused of rainbow washing after releasing its rainbow-themed chicken sandwich in celebration of Pride Month. The controversy here was that the company has a long history of donating to anti-LGBTQIA+ organisations. In 2012, Chick-fil-A donated $1.8 million to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organisation that opposes same-sex marriage. The company’s CEO, Dan Cathy, publicly made homophobic statements in the past. The backlash against rainbow-coloured chicken sandwiches was swift and strong, with many people calling for a company boycott, and some cities protesting against Chick-fil-A from opening new restaurants. In the end, Chick-fil-A decided to discontinue the sandwich.
Another example of rainbow washing is the American retail corporation Target. In 2016, Target released a line of rainbow-themed merchandise to celebrate Pride Month. However, the company was criticised for not donating any of the proceeds from the merchandise to LGBTQIA+ organisations.
Target defended its decision, saying that it wanted to “celebrate Pride Month in a way that is meaningful to our guests.” However, many people felt that Target was missing an opportunity to do something more. In the years since Target has made some changes to its policies. In 2017, the company announced that it would start donating to LGBTQIA+ organisations. Target also began offering equal benefits to same-sex couples.
There are of course many, many more. It is important for people to be aware of rainbow washing to be able to truly align their purchasing power with their values, and support companies that actually care.
Some key tips for identifying rainbow washing:
- Look for actions, not just words. Are the company’s commitments going beyond marketing campaigns to help the LGBTQIA+ community? Are they donating? Are they hiring LGBTQIA+ people?
- Ask about the company’s policies. Do they have a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity? Do they offer equal benefits to same-sex couples?
- Do some research. Do they have a history of donating to anti-LGBTQIA+ organisations? Have their executives made homophobic or transphobic statements?
In addition to the tips above, there are a number of things that you and/or your business can do to become an ally.
Donate or volunteer your time. There are many ways to volunteer your time to support the LGBTQIA+ community. You can visit a local LGBTQIA+ centre or get involved in a political campaign supporting LGBTQIA+ rights.
Educate yourself. Many resources are available to help you learn more about the LGBTQIA+ community.
Speak up when you see someone being harassed or discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Let the person know that you support them and that you will not tolerate discrimination in your workplace or anywhere else.
Remember, you can help to make the world and your company a more inclusive place. Not only in June. You have the power, and this responsibility extends far beyond the month of June. While Pride month serves as a significant time for raising awareness and celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community, it is essential to recognise that the pursuit of inclusivity should be a continuous effort throughout the year.
Inclusive actions and allyship should not be confined to a single month or limited to symbolic gestures. Creating a more inclusive world requires ongoing commitment, education, and advocacy.