the problem with rainbow washing and how to be a true lgbtqia+ ally

It’s that time of year again when big corporations switch out their standard logo for a rainbow coloured variant and start releasing products proclaiming the message “Love Always Wins”. But are these companies really LGBTQIA+ allies or are they using pride as a cop out for deeper issues within their business?

We see it happen every year. As soon as June 1st hits, companies release products inspired by pride, for pride, claiming to be allies of the queer community and supportive of diversity. From Boots to Boohoo and Sainsbury’s to Schuh, these well known brands suddenly seem to have a lot of time for LGBTQ+ groups and yet spend the other 11 months showing little or no support. 

This behaviour has been coined ‘rainbow washing’ and it allows companies to gloss over homophobic, transphobic and biphobic issues. Whilst it’s easy to change your logo to the rainbow flag or hashtag posts with #pridemonth or #prideawareness, filling your social media stream with rainbows and empty words doesn’t equal allyship. 

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Levi’s “All Pronouns, All Love” Campaign

There are some companies who seem to have LGBTQIA+ allyship down to a tee (quite literally). Levi’s made a point to use LGBTQ+ models to shoot their pride collection and not only that, you can find out exactly how the models identify in their feature page “An Open Le. The website is informative, engaging and gives some history into how Pride began, plus, they donate 100% of their profits to Out Right Action International – one of the world’s leading LGBTQIA+ charities. This year, their rainbow inspired collection includes customisable t-shirts and hoodies, baseball caps, bum bags, tube socks and boiler suits. They’ve included the colours of the transgender pride flag and their moto this year is “All Pronouns, All Love. A collection with a call you can’t ignore: Respect all pronouns. Because to use someone’s pronouns is to see how they move through the world.” The money raised from the collection will directly help research, document, defend and advance rights for the LGBTQIA people globally and change many peoples lives.

Moving away from fashion and into finance, an unlikely ally of Pride is the financial tech company Revolut who offers smart, easy banking and is popular amongst young people. In 2020 they released the Rainbow Card, a multicoloured version of the boring debit card that is as much of a talking point as it is a reason to stop using Apple Pay. Revolut customers could choose to sign up to get the limited edition from the 15th June by donating money through the app to ILGA – Europe, an advocacy group promoting the interests of gay, bi, lesbian and transexual people in Central Asia and Europe. ILGA fight for a world where dignity, freedom and  human rights can be enjoyed by everyone regardless of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Since launching the Rainbow Cards, this month Revolut have already raised £388,000 for the charity and using the hashtag #paywithpride hope it will encourage more users to donate.

On the surface it may seem like if a company is selling pride products they are supporting the cause but that isn’t necessarily true.  Take online fashion giant Boohoo, a billion dollar company that saw a 41% increase in sales during the pandemic. They are known for selling cheap clothes made by people who are underpaid and work in poor conditions. Like Levi’s, they’ve released an extensive pride collection, only there is no mention of donating any of their sales revenue to an LGBTQIA+ charity. They are the perfect example of a company who is exploiting Pride for profit with no real intention of creating change in the world. Instead of donating to a charity, they are offering customers a further 10% off using the code “pride10” – money that could instead be donated – and urging people to post their selfies on Instagram with the hashtag #lovewithoutlimits as a way to gain free marketing. In 2020 the company’s value dropped by £500 million when it was revealed that workers in Leicester were being paid as little as £3.50 ph showing the true colours and dangers of shopping at fashion throwaway brands. They’re a company that are excellent at exploitation and plastering over real life issues within the company.

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No mention of donating profits to LGBTQIA+ charities from Boohoo

Perhaps without meaning to, Dr Alex George has also fallen victim to rainbow washing. If you follow him on social media you’ll know he is more than a little obsessed with bath bombs – so much so that he launched Prescrib’d – a business selling, yep, you guessed it, bath bombs. At the start of the month they released a new Pride bath bomb in pastel colours of the rainbow. Although released with the best of intentions, the sales of the Pride bath bomb won’t actually help anyone Pride was created for. Instead, sales will be donated to Young Minds – a very worthy charity but not directly helping people suffering with LGBTQIA+ related issues. 

Well known corporations navigating pride month with awareness and sensitivity is about more than just letting their LGBTQ+ customers and employees know that they’re open and accepting. It’s about changing how businesses present themselves 12 months a year and making space for those whose voices haven’t been heard loud enough. More than ever, there needs to be emphasis on allowing people to be true to themselves and understanding that gender identity and sexual orientation is a spectrum rather than categories. 

Fast fashion brands like Boohoo need to do better. They’re put on a facade that they’re supportive of Pride without any genuine interactions with the queer community. Where money could be donated, discount is instead offered to customers who are tempted into buying more. If brands like New Look, Schuh and Hollister can donate 100% of their profits from Pride products to Pride charities and Doc Martens can donate almost £100,000 to various queer charities then what is stopping other brands who are equally as successful? The answer comes down to greed. 

So, how can companies and people make sure they are being a true ally and not just jumping on the pride bandwagon? 

Support is for life – not just for June

Be  supportive of gay rights movements for 12 months a year. Share news about advances in human rights laws, incorporate the gay community into photoshoots and let their voices be heard. Actively seek out information on how your business can be more diverse and how you can be more supportive for your customers and employees who may be suffering with doubts and worries around gender identity and sexual orientation.

Don’t take the easy way out

Changing an icon or avatar to incorporate rainbow colours or using a few Pride themed hashtags on an insta post is not enough to claim to be a true ally. Think about how you can really help the queer community be heard, whether that’s by paying to use their art, speaking to people about their experiences or celebrating LGBTQIA+ activists within your field. 

Be transparent

If you’re selling a product that is specifically aimed at Pride make sure people know where any generated income will end up. What charities are going to benefit, what do they do to help people and how much of your yearly earnings or profits from Pride products are going to change the lives of others. 

Educate yourself

It’s ok to get things wrong, or to slip out the wrong pronoun – the important thing is you learn from your mistakes, correct yourself and move on. It’s never been more important to make people feel like they can be their entire, wonderful selves so do whatever you can to make people’s lives easier who may be going through a difficult and confusing time. There are so many useful materials out there that will help you understand how Pride came to be and why it is important, so do some reading and enhance your knowledge. 

Don’t make it about you

Pride month isn’t for the heterosexual cisgender individual. It’s about all the people who are still in the closet, scared of coming out, it’s for the people who have come out and lost friends and family through no fault of their own, it’s a chance to show support for the people who have been beaten and broken by people who still think it’s wrong. It’s for anyone who has ever been insulted, teased or marginalised by society. It’s their chance to celebrate who they are without persecution – so whatever you do don’t make it about how it effects you or makes you feel. 

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