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Rainbow-washing: What does real support look like during Pride month?

Navigating the crossroads of LGBTQ+ empowerment and the corporate sector
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Rainbow-washing refers to companies using pride flag colours to demonstrate superficial support for the LGBTQ+ community without taking tangible action. PICTURES OF MONEY/CC FLICKR
Rainbow-washing refers to companies using pride flag colours to demonstrate superficial support for the LGBTQ+ community without taking tangible action. PICTURES OF MONEY/CC FLICKR

With June comes the celebration of Pride month; a frenzy of rainbow-coloured products flood the marketplace, with vibrant packaging denoting solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. This is where the concept of “rainbow-washing” kicks into high gear: organizations’ use of Pride rainbow colours indicates support for LGBTQ+ communities without them having to put in the effort to invoke tangible progress.

The Canadian community health survey reported that 900,000 individuals identify as members of Canada’s LGBTQ+ community, which pales in comparison to the country’s total population of 37.59 million. So why are corporations so intent on attracting LGBTQ+ consumers?

Simply put, the value of LGBTQ+ individuals’ consumer expenditure — known in marketing circles as the “pink dollar” — is worth an estimated $917 billion annually in the US. It’s logical for businesses to expect increased consumption of Pride-related products during a month designated for celebrating LGBTQ+ identity, even if they do not put efforts into being LGBTQ+ friendly at other times of the year. Fortunately, there are several companies that are LGBTQ+ owned and are doing important work to support the LGBTQ+ community beyond just Pride month.

Listening to LGBTQ+ small businesses

One of many LGBTQ+ businesses with a unique, year-round mission to empower and support underrepresented niches within the LGBTQ+ community is Toronto-based Toni Marlow Clothing, which focuses on making inclusive undergarments.

Jaymin Luces-Mendes, the founder, spoke on their company’s evolution. “It started out of thinking [about] people like me, and I’m assigned female at birth… I have hips, I have a period, but I want to wear men’s boxers; or I wear men’s boxers, and it doesn’t address a lot of my needs — there’s the wedgies, the roll up, my capital pad, there’s panty lines, et cetera.”

Instead of just marketing toward the LGBTQ+ community during profitable seasons, Toni Marlow acts directly upon their minoritized consumers’ undergarment needs. “A lot of our design is completely created by the input of actual individuals from the community,” Luces-Mendes told The Varsity. The company uses surveying and sampling tools that have assisted with securing a consumer perspective. To attract queer consumers, businesses must listen to LGBTQ+ demands to better serve the community while they try to gain a larger audience. 

Toni Marlow still strives to make their marketing more inclusive. “We really take our time [to cater to] a wide range of races, body shapes and sizes, complexions, and of course, gender expressions. So, our marketing is queer and straight — we don’t want [the idea that], ‘oh, we’re just rainbows,’ but rather know that our products are made for and by us,” said Luces-Mendes.

This idea was seconded by Carlyle Jansen, founder of Toronto’s Good For Her, who shone a spotlight on the business’ constant internal reevaluation to better accommodate their community. Good For Her offers sex toys, products, and lubricants that are empowering and good for the body. Jansen emphasized the company’s goal of providing honest education for their consumers about what they are purchasing. 

Good for Her also offers “women- and trans-only” hours on Sundays to create a safe space for their shoppers. 

Impact of rainbow-washing on small businesses

Rainbow-washing can overshadow small businesses such as Good For Her that demonstrate effective, year-round support of the LGBTQ+ community. “We can never compete with something like Amazon, and bigger businesses because the only motivation for them is the bottom line,” Jansen told The Varsity. Thus, she chooses to focus on improving Good For Her for its customers by thinking about their unique needs through an intersectional lens to consistently foster a comfortable, welcoming environment.

According to Jansen, Good For Her often asks itself questions like, “What do we need to do differently? Are there new products that we need to reach folks who have fewer options and fewer resources available to them?” 

Luces-Mendes spoke on these hardships as well, and touched on some surprising benefits of corporations’ pandering to LGBTQ+ audiences. Toni Marlow has been given different sponsorships or donations during Pride month which have helped support their business. Even if corporations donate during Pride month solely because they are an LGBTQ+ business, it still allows Toni Marlow to invest in itself. 

Many LGBTQ+ people find comfort in any form of recognition from prominent corporations. Luces-Mendes noted that young people who are new to being out in the LGBTQ+ community get caught up in the rainbow-washed excitement of Pride.

“We’ve all been there. Everything’s rainbows for a few years, right?” they said.

Building inclusive business environments

Organizations like Canada’s LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) help counter the hardships that LGBTQ+ folks face in the corporate world. The goal of the CGLCC is to create an inclusive Canadian economy where LGBTQ+ businesses and entrepreneurs enjoy the same opportunities as other businesses.

“The chamber focuses on supporting the economic advancement and economic empowerment of the LGBT community through entrepreneurship,” said Darell Schuurman, a co-founder of the CGLCC, in an interview with The Varsity.

The CGLCC just completed its second national LGBTQ+ landscape study. Schuurman revealed that LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized businesses face challenges like fear of discrimination and access to financing and mentorship.

“We know that one in four [LGBTQ+ businesses] have actually lost contracts because of LGBT ownership, and one in three have purposely hidden the fact that they have LGBT ownership because of fear of discrimination,” said Schuurman.

A large factor of LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the corporate sector comes from a push for diverse supply chains. The CGLCC works to promote inclusive procurement practices among contracting authorities to assure buyers that potential suppliers have an equitable chance within supply chain competition.

“Inclusion makes sense from a business perspective, but it makes sense from a social impact perspective as well,” Schuurman said.

The CGLCC also has an accreditation program to make sure businesses are LGBTQ+ friendly. “We’re crediting businesses of all sizes, whether [they’re] a small store in a rural community or a large corporation — we’re verifying that they are, in fact, an LGBT-inclusive company by looking at their policies and looking at their practices, then giving them a seal of approval,” Schuurman explained.

Creating inclusive environments around the world

The chamber recently held a roundtable to discuss the United Nations’ standards for business conduct to help fight LGBTQ+ discrimination globally.

“We had over 70 of the largest Canadian and global corporations participating in this roundtable, and these were senior executives: so, presidents, [chief executive officers], chief diversity officers, chief human resource officers, all coming together to see how they could do better as it relates to LGBTQ+ human rights,” said Schuurman.

The CGLCC also works with 15 global LGBTQ+ chambers of commerce all over the world. In working globally, the CGLCC aims to see how global LGBTQ+ inclusivity efforts can be derived in implementing progressive laws.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here, and certainly a lot of work to be done globally. And so we’re very privileged to work with some great partners — not only business organizations, but other civil society organizations that are working to fight for [inclusivity] from the social side, as we’ll fight on the business side. Together, hopefully, we can meet in the middle and create some really impactful change,” Schuurman said.