Rainbow washing

It is that time of the year again. Pride Month is here as well as the bright new rainbow logos of countless corporations, companies, and other organisations.  

I see these rainbows everywhere, and as a queer individual, I am happy to see so much support for the LGBTQ+Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Trans (T), Queer (Q), Intersex (I), Asexual (A), + denotes an umbrella term used by 'marginalized sexual and gender diverse people whose gender, gender expression, or sexual identity do not conform to cis-gender or hetero-dominant gender identity'. This acronym is intersectional by virtue of its nature as well as non-exhaustive and inclusive (as denoted by the +). Over the years, the + has been understood as encompassing Questioning (Q), Two-spirit (TS), or Pansexual (P). In other words, this term represents fluid (non-conforming) notions of gender identity and sexual orientation supposedly transgressing the binary constructs of our society (male v. female and heterosexual v. homosexual).close community but there is more than meets the eye. 

While this month represents a commemoration of the Stonewall riots of 1969, which started the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, its original meaning is hard to trace among the many rainbow logos and products rolled out by companies this month. From clothes and shoes to mouthwash, shower gel and vodka, corporations surely did not want to miss another marketing opportunity for their products. Using rainbow images, colours, or symbols to promote your business as progressive and earn consumers’ credibility without actively working to support LGBTQ+ folks is called rainbow washing. Put bluntly, it is co-opting a proud symbol of the LGBTQ+ community for commercial gain.

Rainbow washing is a performative act of allyship without tangible contribution to the queer community and that’s why it’s so bad. The damage comes from the intention and the indulging, as these gestures generally lack any actual substance.  

But what if brands wanted to appeal to their LGBTQ+ customers? The purchasing power of LGBTQ+ individuals (also referred to as the pink dollar) represents over €1 trillion, and thus, an ever-increasing market for companies. Picking up these colours and this inclusive message is a way to increase a brand’s visibility, sales, and most importantly: profits. Nevertheless, if this marketing strategy merely remains performative by not supporting LGBTQ+ organisations, not providing inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ people to work in, or worse, financing anti-LGBTQ+ politicians/activities, it simply feeds the capitalist machine through its hypocrisy. 

Sure, these rainbows are fun to see but let me tell you that as a queer person, sprinkling some rainbow colours on top of your brand logo or on certain items will rarely advance my rights. Although showing up for the LGBTQ+ community takes many forms, it rarely involves painting a bottle of vodka with rainbow colours… This needs to be coupled with actual actions such as donating to LGBTQ+ activist organisations, hiring/working with queer professionals, seeking to advance civil rights for queer communities, publicly denouncing hate crimes, stigmatisation or harmful laws etc. This needs to be a year-long commitment and not just some fancy window dressing during Pride Month. 

Rainbow washing is harmful insofar as it overlooks long histories of LGBTQ+ struggles for the sole purpose of brand marketing. The commodification and monetisation of the pride flag have diluted the initial meaning of queer resistance and resilience against oppression. It is also damaging because it actively misleads well-intentioned individuals into buying products thinking that the brand supports the LGBTQ+ community, when in reality, they are filling the pockets of multi-million companies. Take for instance, BMW, a multi-million euro car company. The logo on their official (global) Instagram page is painted with rainbow colours. While this goes against certain eco-friendly, sustainable, and anti-capitalist values within the queer community, we can let that slide. However, if one looks at the Instagram pages of BMW Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, or else, poof no more rainbow colours since well these countries criminalise homosexuality (with the death penalty). Do you see the capitalist hypocrisy? 

That is not to say that the popularity of Pride and the celebration of queer individuals and families should not be acknowledged because it also reflects the incredible leaps the LGBTQ+ community has taken in terms of social, political, and cultural progress. There are actually brands and businesses that work alongside LGBTQ+ organizations, activists for their Pride month campaigns and these should be recognized for their work and support. For instance, Calvin Klein just launched its Pride 2021 campaign. Unquestionably, the clothes look sick and they are also comfortable – yes I have tried them. What is more important is that the models hired for the shoot come from the queer community as well. This campaign celebrating diversity and inclusion also continues Calvin Klein’s ongoing work in support of multiple LGBTQ+ organisations, such as ILGA World, The Trevor Project, or Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.

However, the next time you see a company changing its logo with a short message of inclusivity, you can dig a bit deeper and yourself the following questions:

It seems like rainbow washing is here to stay. Yet, as consumers, let’s try to see beyond the corporate marketing veil and act consciously.