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  • Writer's pictureNishtha Sehgal

Pride Month - Trick or Treat?

Imagine walking through a store in June and being greeted by a kaleidoscope of rainbow flags and LGBTQ+ slogans, each seemingly shouting messages of love and acceptance. It's a powerful visual, isn't it? Pause for a moment though, and consider this: behind the vibrant colors and catchy slogans, how much of this support is genuine, and how much is just surface-level decoration? Is June the only time when the brand promotes the LGBTQ+ community? How do we distinguish between companies that authentically champion LGBTQ+ rights and those that engage in what's termed "rainbow washing"? And perhaps most importantly, why does it matter?


Rainbow washing is a phenomenon when companies use LGBTQ+ symbols and colors to show support during Pride Month, but their actions don’t match their words. Instead of truly supporting LGBTQ+ rights, their efforts are directed towards trying to boost their image or sell more products. It’s a faux allyship - putting on a colorful mask to hide that they’re not involved in the fight for equality.


Rainbow washing might seem harmless at first, but it can mislead consumers and undermine the real efforts of those who genuinely support LGBTQ+ rights. When companies pretend to care about LGBTQ+ issues solely to make money, it distracts from the real struggles and efforts of the community. More importantly, it reduces the spirit and struggles of the LBGTQ+ to a mere marketing gimmick.

 

This week, we got to interview Izzy Mcleod, the founder of the “Who Made My Pride Merch?” campaign. Aimed at calling brands making pride merchandise more transparent, the campaign focuses on getting companies to pay their workers better, ensure they're treated fairly, and safeguard their LGBTQ+ workers. When asked to share her first time encountering rainbow washing, she shared

“Back in 2018 or 2019, I was reading an article on BBC News about pride merch being made in countries where it was illegal to be gay, and at that time I was looking into sustainable and ethical fashion and realized it was also countries where garment workers aren’t paid a living wage, etc. This was my first big realization of ‘Oh these brands are really just here for profit, they want the money of those who can buy their clothes but don’t care about the queer people making them.’”

Before this year’s Pride festival, Data for Progress released a list of companies in the United States who have donated money to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians in six states, while simultaneously preparing to rainbow wash their businesses for Pride month. This list includes Fortune 500 companies, even businesses that have taken the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Business pledge.


It truly shocked me to see that even companies like Toyota, AT&T, Amazon, and Comcast, all together have donated over USD 1.1 million to candidates with anti-LGBTQ+ agendas. But this isn’t a new occurrence. Izzy illustrated,

"Brands like H&M, and Converse, are doing lots for pride month but not being transparent in their supply chains. Brands and companies are appealing to wealthy LGBTQ+ people in the global north while that money and support doesn’t make it to the countries and communities where these clothes are made, where the impacts of climate change are highest, or where there are wars. I also think big brands and companies take up a lot of space at Pride where smaller grassroots organizations communities, and small businesses could actually utilize the money to support their communities."

Not all that glitters is gold—or, in this case, rainbow. Companies are essentially putting on a colorful show to attract your attention and, more importantly, your money.


So, how much tokenism and rainbow washing are we prepared to accept this Pride Month?

And if you’re wondering how YOU can ensure your support goes to the right places, we’ve got you covered! 


We asked Izzy the same question and here's what she had to say,

“I think brands are sneaky about it, but you have to look at their suppliers and see if they’re transparent about that because if they can’t answer who makes their clothes, that says a lot. Keep asking questions and joining campaigns, ask clothing brands who make their clothes. Ask pride events why they’re sponsored by arms companies or why banks are funding fossil fuel companies. Boycott brands and corporate prides who are engaging in greenwashing and support your local grassroots organizations and queer-owned businesses. But I’d recommend shopping at LGBTQ+-owned brands, ideally small businesses, as here you’re directly supporting LGBTQ+ people. Money and support have a lot of power and collectively we can change things.”

Being an informed and conscious consumer, you can help ensure your support truly benefits the LGBTQ+ community. Pride celebrates love, identity, and the ongoing fight for equality. It’s a time to honor the struggles and achievements of the LGBTQ+ community. If you see rainbow-washing out there, speak up, ask questions, and be a part of the change, not just a colorful bystander.


We’re not saying that brands shouldn’t sell Pride merchandise, simply that it should be inclusive, authentic, and probably designed by someone who identifies within the community. 70% of consumers say that it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues and 67% think that brands are good at raising awareness around public issues. Are you one of them?


For example, during Pride Month 2022, Tinder used its marketing platform to advocate for the end of the FDA legislation that prohibits gay men from donating blood.” Similarly, this heart-touching Starbucks ad focuses on identity, and how isolating and demoralizing it can feel when we aren’t recognized for who we are. 


In fact, you’d be GLAAD to know that in 2020, Skittles launched a unique series of ads for Pride Month. What’s most notable is that the ad features no rainbows, swapping out the traditionally colorful Skittles for a grayscale design. Their tagline? 

“Only one rainbow matters during pride.” 

To make their campaign even more impactful, Skittles partnered with the LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD and donated $1 from every package of Skittles sold to the organization, up to $100,000.


Slapping rainbow colors on products and services reduces the fight for equality to a marketing trend, ignoring the ongoing challenges that LGBTQ+ people face everyday. In an increasingly complex world with an overflow of information everywhere, let’s not just gulp in whatever we see, and let's not lose our ability to question the system.

Authenticity matters. As Izzy says,

“Genuine LGBTQ+ advocacy is still here and will not be going anywhere but I do think rainbow-washing distracts and sanitizes it. For some, it makes the LGBTQ+ community more palatable but I think many of us would argue that we don’t want to be palatable, we don’t want to be monetizable, we want equity and equality”

By being aware and making thoughtful choices, we can ensure that support goes to those who truly stand for equality. Real change happens when actions match words, not just during Pride Month, but every day of the year.


Written by Nishtha Sehgal


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