Rainbow Washing: What Is It And How To Avoid It

10.5.2022
Stacey Garratt

It’s Pride Month! Time for rainbow-printed tote bags, shirts, cat toys, and baby onesies. 

If you can think of it, it probably comes in rainbow. And if a brand can’t hawk some rainbow merch, they’re at least gonna go ROYGBIV on their social media avatars. 

It’s so common that there’s actually a name for it: rainbow washing.

What is rainbow washing?

Rainbow washing is when a brand adds rainbow colours or other queer-themed imagery into their advertising, branding, merchandising, etc., to indicate support for LGBTQ2S+ people while providing little to no benefit, even supporting discrimination against the queer community in some cases.

Wait, isn’t rainbow washing a good thing?

Yes and no.

On the one hand, it’s great to see major brands at least acknowledge LGBTQ2S+ people and issues! It also gives allies a great reason to take an interest in LGBTQ2S+ owned businesses and issues, maybe even making a donation or sharing info on social media. 

And that is great!

But there’s a darker side of the rainbow. 

It can be easy to get caught up in the cuteness of Pride and forget, as the War On Christmas crowd likes to say, “the reason for the season.” 

When Gilbert Baker designed the iconic rainbow flag for the first Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco, California, in 1978, it was meant to be a lasting symbol of diversity and a celebration of how far we’ve come. 

It’s also an acknowledgement of our fierce commitment to the fights ahead of us. 

When brands co-opt the rainbow, they share the spotlight with initiatives and projects by LGBTQ2S+ groups, activists, and artists. It becomes rainbow washing when it’s done so irresponsibly. 

When isn't it rainbow washing?

It's likely not rainbow washing when you:

- Sell, platform or promote Pride merch that directly finances LGBTQA+ creators. Artists gotta eat! 

- Brag on social media and ad materials about making a donation, volunteering, sponsoring an LGBTQA+ event, or creating real initiatives that benefit LGBTQA+ causes. 

- Create a limited Pride collection where the proceeds go to LGBTQA+ causes in a meaningful way. 

- Change a social media avatar, signage, or other general brand lewks in conjunction with doing one of the actions above.

When is it rainbow washing?

It could be considered rainbow washing if you:

- Sell rainbow-smeared whatevers and pocket the proceeds. Extra negative points if that rainbow crap was made unethically.

- Spit some bullshit about your brand’s “commitment to blah, blah, diversity, blah, blah” while knowing damn well it’s an unsafe workplace for LGBTQA+ employees to exist. 

- Take part in a parade that’s basically an advertisement on wheels for your company while not doing anything else. 

- Use your LGBTQ2S+ workers as trendy diversity props while also underpaying them and denying them inclusive benefits. 

- Change your avatar on social media because you heard it’s the thing to do, and then just call it a day. 

And it’s especially really, really not okay to do these things AND donate to causes that hurt LGBTQA+ people and issues. I know you’re wondering, “who would do that? That’s beyond egregious. Surely no brand is that dumb.” Well…

Companies with a history of rainbow washing

AT&T

While the cellular giant asked users to #TurnUpTheLove for LGBTQA+ youth on Twitter, it was loud and clear about its priorities. Thanks for the $1 million Trevor Project donation, but that doesn’t offset the $15 million donations to anti-LGBTQA+ politicians making it one of the most prominent anti-gay donors. 

Walmart

Was anyone surprised that Walmart’s Pride & Joy rainbow section was a sham? Anybody? Gotta assume Walmart was both proud and joyful to help foot the bill for an anti-trans bill. 

Home Depot

While the DIY giant has reportedly been decent to its actual staffers, all the rainbow paint splatters in the world can’t offset nearly $2 million in anti-LGBTQA+ interests. 

Comcast

Comcast proudly boosted the Celebrating Pride on Xfinity collection of curated LGBTQA+ content, saying, “with Xfinity, it’s Pride all year.” Guess Pride must have been taking a day off when Comcast donated over $2 million to anti-LGBTQA+ interests.

The big Zaddies of brands doing the rainbow right

Apple

Apple not only releases Apple Watch Pride bands and accessories but has put some actual thought into them, expanding the collection to represent the intersectionality of Pride. Apple’s stayed true to its commitment to LGBTQA+ advocacy with donations to Encircle, Human Rights Campaign, PLAG National, the Trevor Project, Gender Spectrum and the National Center for Transgender Equality. 

Bath & Body Works

Keep your body and conscience clean when you shop Bath & Body Works. They’ve created a resource group year-round for their associates for allyship, intersectionality, mental health, and education. They encourage their employees to share their pronouns and offer inclusive benefits for diverse identities.

MAC Cosmetics

Of course, the brand that famously had Ru Paul as its spokesmodel in 1994 is crushing Pride. For close to 30 years, their Viva Glam cosmetics line has donated all proceeds to the Mac Viva Glam Fund to sponsor HIV/AIDS research. In total, MAC has raised more than $500 million worldwide. It looks like you just got a great excuse to go on a MAC spree. 

Target

Shop Target’s fabulous Pride merch (in gender diverse sizing, OMG) with love, knowing GLAAD calls them “the world’s largest and most visible LGBTQA+ anti-bullying-campaign.” A World Pride Stonewall 50 Platinum sponsor, Target’s Pride merch is created in collaboration with queer-founded design brands. Thank god, because their pet Pride section is too damn cute to pass up. 

Is your workplace rainbow washing? 

Well, that’s embarrassing. If you can (and I realize this is a big IF), talk to your company reps about how the brand is navigating Pride.

If your workplace is a reasonably safe (but maybe oblivious) space, here are a few direct actions you can take to undo the rainbow washing.

  • Ask about where the proceeds of any Pride merchandise are going. If they’re co-opting Pride for profit, the least they can do is put their money where their mouth is. 
  • Congratulate them on changing their social media handles and ask how the company plans to honour Pride month. Offer to give them a list of potential local efforts for donations of money, time, or resources. 
  • Look for opportunities for your business to support LGBTQ2S+-owned businesses. Do they cater lunches? Have they been looking to hire a new employee or vendor? If a direct LGBTQA+ business isn’t possible, how about pairing up with a World Pride Stonewall sponsor business?
  • If your company plans to have a presence at a Pride event, see if they’ll consider sponsoring an actual LGBTQA+ group instead. Tons of non-profits would love the chance to have a flashy float that promotes the work they’re actually doing, but they need a business to step in and sponsor them. And yes, your workplace will still get the sponsorship credit.

And for other brands that are straight up rainbow washing? 

Call ‘em out. That’s what social media is for. If they get enough static for rainbow washing, they’ll either drop the ruse or, hopefully, step up their game. Be loud, be proud. After all, that’s what Pride season is all about. 

Written by:
Stacey Garratt

Stacey Garratt is a Los Angeles based writer with a passion for sexuality, comedy, relationships, and intersectional reproductive justice. Her work has won the silver Cleo Entertainment Award, the gold Obie Award, and placed in the Filmmatic Comedy Awards and Webby Awards. As a bisexual, ENM woman, she’s thrilled to be contributing to Freddie Magazine.