Rainbow Washing Is A Thing, Here’s Why It Needs To Stop

By Daya Czepanski

rainbows are painted on the arms of two people wearing denim jeans and white t-shirts

Pride month 2021 is here and big brands are switching gear to monetise the rainbow. In the last decade alone it’s clear to see companies have caught onto the fact that LGBTQI+ folks, well... actually buy things. In fact, we buy quite a lot of things. Enough things, that companies have realised that it might actually be worthwhile to try and appeal to us so we start buying their things as well. And thus, Rainbow Washing was born. 

What Is Rainbow Washing? 

Rainbow washing, as defined by Urban Dictionary, is: “The act of using or adding rainbow colors and/or imagery to advertising, apparel, accessories, landmarks… in order to indicate progressive support for LGBTQ equality (and earn consumer credibility)—but with a minimum of effort or pragmatic result.” In layman’s terms, rainbow washing is when a business, conglomerate or other for-profit organisation uses the rainbow Pride colours to suggest to consumers that they support the LGBTQI+ community, without having to put in actual effort or produce a tangible outcome for queer folk. 

During June, companies that engage in rainbow washing will transform into colourful hubs, with bright, rainbow versions of their logo on social media. Their advertising and feeds may “highlight” local members of the LGBTQI+ community, featuring them wearing their seasonal “Pride” merch or other company apparel, without paying (or underpaying) the queer talent involved. They might drop the rainbow flag colours across their advertising to catch your eye and entice you into their stores. Or they might allude to Queer organisations they support, without bringing out the receipts to prove it. Then BOOM—the first of July rolls around and everything switches back to business as usual while they walk away with your hard-earned queer cash.

Why Does Rainbow Washing Matter? 

Well, according to FORBES, in 2019, LGBTQI+ adults held a combined buying power of $3.7 trillion dollars. That’s a lot of moolah!  Referred to as “pink money”, the growing economic power of the pink dollar has been catching the attention of businesses with growing intensity. An article by the BBC (“Business: The Economy: The Pink Pound”) suggested that “upwards of 90% of gay people support businesses which target pink money, while actively boycotting anti-gay companies”, and in 2017 MarketingMag stated “Almost 70% of homosexuals admit to being positively influenced by ads that contain gay and lesbian imagery …”, which means that in order for businesses to get your pink buck, they must appear supportive of the community. And when even token gestures of support encourage brand loyalty, return customers and free advertising from LGBTQI+ consumers, it makes sense that companies spend so much time catering to us each June.

What Does Rainbow Washing Look Like?

It can be hard to differentiate between genuine support and “Corporate Pride”, so here are a few red flags to look out for this Pride season. A company might be Rainbow Washing if during June they:

  • Launch Pride initiatives
  • Use LGBTQI+ team members as props in content 
  • Use the rainbow to push products 
  • Have corporate groups marching in parades 
  • Offer false incentives for queer talent 
  • Underpay queer talent 
  • Change logos temporarily 
  • Make empty gestures
  • Foster an unsafe workplace for queer staff
  • Don’t donate to LGBTQI+ causes
  • Run a Pride campaign while contributing to anti-LGBTQI+ organisations/public figures

Why Is It Damaging? 

The commodification and monetisation of the Pride flag (a flag that represents the Queer community’s long history of resilience against oppression and strife) has had a watering down effect on Pride as an event. In some people’s minds, Pride has become more about brand deals, sponsorships and celebrity appearances, than amplifying queer voices and raising awareness for LGBTQI+ issues. It’s also damaging because it misleads well-intentioned people into thinking they’re supporting the LGBTQI+ community, when in reality they’re lining the pockets of multi-billion dollar corporations.

How Can I Be Sure I’m Actually Supporting A LGBTQI+ Business And Not Buying Into The Rainbow?

Great question! As a general rule of thumb, if a corporation is genuinely supportive of the LGBTQI+ community, you won’t have to look too far to find where their support goes. But before pledging your allegiance make sure to check if:

  • Their support is year-round 
  • They uplift queer employees year-round
  • Their support is transparent (clear mission statement)
  • Their support is measurable (has outcomes)
  • Their policies align with UN standards of conduct 
  • They address community issues (take feedback)
  • The offer paid opportunities for queer folk
  • They speak up to impact anti-LGBTQI+ policy and legislation

Next up, check out Daya's piece on how you can be a better trans ally

Image Credit: Anna Shvets/Pexels

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