Rainbow-Washing

Unpacking the complex territory of performative activism, corporate appropriation, and political correctness.

Key Takeaways

  1. Although brands have been slapping rainbows and pink triangles on their wares for years now in order to garner favor with the lucrative queer market, 2021 seems like the year every brand is trying to appear as an ally.
  2. The fashion industry, however, has been aware and supportive of the LGBTQ community for much longer than its corporate constituents.
  3. There is something to be said about the biggest companies in the world feeling the pressure to, at least publicly during the month of June, announce their love for the queer community.

UrbanDictionary.com describes rainbow-washing as: “The act of using rainbow colors… in order to indicate progressive support for LGBTQ equality and earn consumer credibility, but with a minimum of effort or pragmatic results.” In essence, baiting a recently woke world with rainbow imagery, only for the month of June, in order to make more money.

And this year may be the queerest corporate year on record—with society reopening onto a world still in recovery from an existential shift in culture, the push for companies to show unity with the LGBTQ community has come to a roiling boil. Although brands have been slapping rainbows and pink triangles on their wares for years now in order to garner favor with the lucrative queer market, 2021 seems like the year every brand is trying to appear as an ally. What was once a simple request for basic visibility—hence how a rainbow flag splashed across a Listerine bottle once upon a time became an acceptable form of showing solidarity—has transformed into a need to show true support, and brands once unaccustomed to thinking about their LGBTQ employees or Pride are racing as fast as they can to glitterize their image. Simply scroll through LinkedIn right now and see the myriad chemical companies and venture capital firms sporting rainbow logos. According to Edelman, two-thirds of consumers now buy or boycott brands based on beliefs—in some ways, corporations are just trying to stay in the black (or rainbow, as it were), and treat Pride as any other cash-cow moment.

The fashion industry, however, has been aware and supportive of the LGBTQ community for much longer than its corporate constituents. The reasons behind this above-average response and long-held relationship may be many: more queer and queer-friendly artists are drawn to and work in fashion, making it a working haven; many designers are queer and many fashion houses were started by queer people (Versace, Marc Jacobs, Halston, Raf Simons); and in general, trends which the queer community champion tend to disseminate among the heteronormative world at large. And although fashion is not always on the right side of history—its environmental impact alone is astonishing, the results of which are just beginning to be unpacked—the recognition of queer culture in fashion goes deeper than the rainbow flag adorning a bag of Doritos.

And perhaps that’s why rainbow pre-made sandwiches appearing on shelves June 1st seems so much more of an egregious overreach of familiarity than, say, Calvin Klein’s Pride collection.

“Unless a company is driven by a social mission, I think it gets hairy quite quickly when they try to get involved in ‘movements,’” says Daniel DuGoff, the founder of Brooklyn-based apparel and swim brand HOMOCO. “When a company has never been active in advocating for social justice, it comes off, at best, as disingenuous. At the very worst, it looks like they're pandering. And it can be so transparent. It is shameful to see banks change their logos to have rainbows, while at the same time supporting the politicians who are actively trying to strip rights away from trans youth."

“I think there's a gut feeling that there are queer people working in the fashion industry, so it's more OK for the holding companies that operate the bigger fashion brands to do something for Pride. But is the private equity company that actually owns the fashion brand making that decision because they want to be on the right side of history, or because it's a way to sell more products? And selling stuff is fine, but let's be clear about it.”

Although HOMOCO is clearly a thoroughly queer clothing company—from its gay founder to its decidedly diverse casting choices, to its non-gendered sizing and fits, to its partnerships with legendary organizations like Tom of Finland—it rarely if ever incorporates Pride-specific campaigns into its marketing product cycle.

“Because HOMOCO is queer all year,” DuGoff reasons, “we don't need to wave a rainbow flag in June. That said, June is Pride and the beginning of summer, and our number one product is swimwear, so summer is natural when a lot of our new products come out. It’s our Christmas season. When we collaborate with other companies, they often want a product that launches in June. And I'm happy for them to use ‘Pride’ messaging around the product, but at HOMOCO we rarely do. Or if we do, it's not a ‘this month only’ story.”

Yet, there is something to be said about the biggest companies in the world feeling the pressure to, at least publicly during the month of June, announce their love for the queer community. Who can quantify, for example, the kind of impact a Pride apparel section in a rural Walmart could have on a young gay or trans kid’s life?

Example of NON-rainbow-washing: John Giorno, PREFER CRYING IN A LIMO TO LAUGHING ON A BUS, 2017.


“At a base level, I do think there's power seeing a mega-brand say it's okay to be queer,” DuGoff opines. “Even when that mega-brand is all kinds of problematic, that they're even doing anything is something. There are a million examples of companies taking hypocritical stances, and I don't need to call them out. But what I actually care about is what's going on behind the curtain—how the company actually advances queer, trans, BIPOC, AAPI people.”

Gia Kuan
, a fashion publicist whose firm has represented the likes of Telfar, Mirror Palais, Kim Shui, BOND Hardware, Area, and many more, has held her client’s hands through many campaigns, including Pride-specific ones. She understands the difference between a mainstream corporate entity rainbow-washing itself for Pride and a fashion brand that has historically been involved in the queer community for years, but she also believes there shouldn’t be any holding back when it comes to judging a Pride campaign’s integrity—or lack thereof.

“There shouldn't be a distinction, though there is definitely a difference in perception––perhaps it’s fashion’s integration of casting and the human form that lends its campaigns more empathy. The truth is fashion should not be immune to the same kind of criticism at all, and any type of Pride integration should be considered very carefully. While I think many companies start Pride campaigns with good intentions, there's been an increasing amount of brands indicating their support for LGBTQ equality but without long-term efforts… outside those to earn more dollars.”

With a roster of high-end and niche fashion brands, Kuan is often working with LGBTQ clients and teams. And although she will execute Pride campaigns, she advises her charges to stay extra vigilant when deciding to launch such an endeavor.

“We’ve only done Pride campaigns in the past if it was true to the brand’s DNA, because otherwise, efforts may come across as performative if not done properly. NOTO Botanics is a queer-owned brand whose original purpose was championing representation, awareness, and change within our social systems and using beauty as a tool for its larger message. They launched a Pride campaign recently, but it completely made sense for the brand given what it was founded on.”

To that point, there are steps fashion lines can take to make sure they’re approaching their LGBTQ customer base and campaign strategies in a genuinely supportive manner.

“Partner with nonprofits all year, not just during Pride Month or Black History Month or on National Ice Cream Day,” DuGoff explains. “Work with models who shine a light on underrepresented communities, and pay them. Build social justice missions into your brand from the ground up. Match your employees' donations. Give your employees time off to vote and to volunteer. Companies talk so much about their cultures. But what if company culture meant more than paid time off and kombucha?”