As we enter the final days of June, it is time to say goodbye—not to Pride, but to the month we dedicate to it. Pride month is a complex, emotional and sacred time for many, from members of the LGBTQ+ community who carve out time to celebrate queer joy and plan for change, to friends, families and allies who show up with support, love and empathy.
Increasingly, it is not just individuals and communities who seem to be partaking in Pride celebrations. If you have noticed an uptick in rainbow-coloured paraphernalia splashed over every website or storefront you have visited recently, you’ll know that no matter where you turn, there is no escape from the corporate allyship during the month of June. You’ll see Pride-themed collections, sentimental corporate videos, rainbow logos and of course, drag queen memes.
This should seem a happy, positive thing. Companies, big and small, are proclaiming their support for the LGBTQ+ community with queer-friendly branding, and as a result, increasingly attracting an open-minded audience.
But before you spend your hard-earned money with a brand you now believe to hold the same values that you do, there is one question you should ask yourself: Is this brand truly concerned with the queer cause, or does its interest lie merely in the queer dollar?
What does rainbow-washing mean?
If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘rainbow-washing’, think of it as Greenwashing’s flamboyant cousin. Only, instead of faux-sustainable merchandise and environmentally-friendly marketing spiel slotted into a company’s ‘Our Story’ section, rainbow-washing promises—quite literally—rainbows on everything. Investigate these companies’ actual backgrounds however, and you’ll notice a conspicuous lack of any inclusive policies, such as employee health insurance that covers same-sex couples, or donations to any LGBTQ+ organisations.
So why do do brands do this? “Same reason why companies became feminists and environmentalists overnight,” says Pat Law, Singaporean creative director and founder of social media marketing agency Good Stuph. “Remember the time when we were drowning in Fem-vertising back in 2017? Banks with one token female board member were running ads telling the world they wanted to empower women.”
“Brands get to portray themselves as inclusive, but in reality don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting or real work”
According to Law, being ‘woke’ is good for business. By publicly aligning themselves with the LGBTQ+ community, companies are able to pander to a growing body of increasingly socially-conscious consumers. In a sense, these brands are co-opting the queer liberation movement for monetary gain, without actually investing in the very community that they are piggybacking off of to keep up appearances.
As a side effect of his social media following, Teo Yu Sheng, Singaporean product designer and founder of local queer brand Heckin’ Unicorn, has had an intimate glimpse of what corporate rainbow-washing can look like. “We’ve had brands approach Heckin’ Unicorn to help promote their new line of Pride merchandise. In return, they offer to send us some of their merch. Before we accepted, we wanted to know if any of the proceeds from the line would go to LGBTQ+ organisations,” Teo shares.
“It takes more than just a rainbow flag and a bunch of rainbow-themed products to understand what LGBTQ+ folk go through”
“Eventually, we found out that none of the proceeds would be donated to any LGBTQ+ organisation. In fact, this company had only pledged 0.0015 percent of their annual revenue to an LGBTQ+ organisation, while planning to pocket all of the earnings from the Pride series.”
Teo adds: “When a company makes shallow gestures to appear as if they support the movement for equality, but in reality doesn’t contribute meaningfully, that is classic rainbow-washing. From a branding perspective, they get to portray themselves as being at the forefront of pushing for LGBTQ+ rights, but don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting or real work.”
Knowing the good from the bad
Companies hold immense power over our lives, as they do cultural capital. Thus, it is important to caveat that when it comes to social issues, corporate support can be highly valuable. In some cases, it is essential. The recent overturn of the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling saw companies like Apple and Dick’s Sporting Goods come out in support of reproductive rights, offering travel reimbursement packages to any employees needing to seek abortions in other states.
What would do us good, however, is learning to distinguish genuine, meaningful support like the above from blithe marketing, or in some truly insidious cases—malicious intent. “If a company pretends to be LGBTQ+ affirming but in reality isn’t, then they are essentially manipulating the queer community for profit, which is just unethical. Even worse is when companies actively donate to or support anti-LGBTQ movements,” says Teo.
“Ask yourself if your corporate culture remains inclusive beyond the month of June. If it doesn’t, then it is time to take a good hard look at how you drive change in your own house”
As consumers, how do we know when a company is rainbow-washing? Law notes that genuine inclusion has a sense of authenticity that separates itself from opportunistic marketing. “rainbow-washing is harmful because it dilutes the real issues that LGBTQ+ people face on a daily basis, both at work and in their real lives. It takes more than just a rainbow flag and a bunch of rainbow-themed products to understand what we go through. I don’t care for a CEO telling me she is an ally on LinkedIn. I care when she shares her company policies that ensure an inclusive workplace environment for all her employees.”
Teo shares: “Most brands that donate to charitable causes announce it very, very loudly. If a company releases Pride-themed merchandise and you want to know if a they are engaging in rainbow-washing, check their website, press releases and social media pages to see if they mention donating to LGBTQ+ organisations or partnering with one. If they don’t, then it’s very likely that they’re not donating anything.”
He also notes that this level of scrutiny should generally be applied to bigger corporations with the resources to make meaningful change, rather than small mom-and-pop stores who want to show their support for Pride.
Turning over a new leaf
Not every company that launches a rainbow collection or a Pride campaign is rainbow-washing. Both Law and Teo’s respective brands put out new products during the month of June—and Law attests to liking a number of different Pride-related advertisements, such as the short film ‘Francesca’ by Diesel. The general consensus is that most companies that partake in Pride-related marketing are unlikely to be operating from a place of malice, but rather, ignorance. So how can they actually do better?
Law and Teo emphasise the importance of putting your money where your mouth is, especially as a big corporation with high profits. “If you are launching a series of Pride merchandise, make sure you donate a meaningful part of the proceeds to a local LGBTQ+ organisation,” says Teo. “Also, if your company donates to politicians who push for anti-LGBTQ laws, do not produce Pride merchandise until you can stop these donations.”
An inclusive company culture—and by extension, an inclusive brand image—starts from the inside. And while efforts such as internal Pride celebrations are a good start, Teo suggests using the time to also check in on HR policies and employee benefits. “Think about it—can your diversity policies be improved? Can your insurance cover LGBTQ+ folks? Is your workplace safe for transgender employees to be out?”
Once a company evaluates if they are, indeed, rainbow-washing, they can move towards making real change. Law sums it up succinctly: “Ask yourself if your corporate culture remains inclusive beyond the month of June. If it doesn’t, then it is time to take a good hard look at how you drive change in your own house.”