LGBTQ+ Pride: Firms accused of ‘rainbow-washing’

Major retailers are slapping rainbows on products in a bid to cash in on Pride, LGBTQ+ campaigners have claimed.

The Queer Emporium said they welcomed the extra visibility, but said very little money was going to the community and it felt like a “money grab”.

An activist said there were also concerns around the exploitation of workers making merchandise in countries where it is illegal to be gay.

Pride Cymru said it was “heartening” to see many brands embracing Pride.

“Huge amounts of massive companies do just slap rainbows on their products and sell them at a higher price,” said Yan White, founder and director of social enterprise and not-for-profit Queer Emporium.

He added that even when a portion of profit was donated to a community group or charity, it was relatively “miniscule”.

“Lots and lots of brands will create rainbow versions of their products…but the reality is there’s very little if any money actually going back to the LGBTQ+ community,” he said.

He added that whilst the increased visibility was good, as well as things like LGBTQ+ networks in companies, he believed businesses profiting from merchandise could do more to help communities.

“I think the trans community is by far the most persecuted in the UK in the media and on a political level as well, so I think a lot of those companies could throw their weight behind that particular group and I think that could make a bigger difference if they really do want to do something progressive.”

Initially set up for four weeks during last year’s Pride month, to offer a more localised service to people who wanted to celebrate the occasion, the Cardiff store has remained open and now works with around 20 LGBTQ+ businesses.

History of the rainbow

The rainbow flag first became a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community back in 1978, when an artist Gilbert Baker made a design with eight stripes to be used on gay freedom day in San Francisco.

The flag’s use spread across America, and by the 1990s it was a symbol for people trying to get equal rights for the community.

Over the last few years the flag has changed and been updated to represent more communities.

Mr White said he had noticed a growing desire among customers for ethically made products.

“I think there is a problem where if you want to shop in a shop like mine, you would expect that level of ethics to be there,” he said.

“I’m glad we’re held to account but I feel that sometimes larger businesses, particularly chains, just aren’t, because people just choose to ignore it.”

Izzy McLeod from Cardiff said while it was nice to have reached a place where rainbows were on a lot of products, they were concerns about conditions for workers making the products.

“We shouldn’t be relying on exploitation of other people for us to celebrate ourselves,” the activist said.

“These corporations are doing it because it is profitable, and when they’re doing it in a way that’s saying ‘we support LGBTQ+ people whilst making merchandise in countries where maybe it’s illegal to be gay’, then it comes across as very ‘we’re going to take your money, but we’re not going to do the work,” the 24-year-old said.

“Pride should be about queer liberation for all, not just capitalising on the pink pound, we cannot continue to let brands pander to one part of the LGBTQ community, while participating in the exploitation of another,” they said.

Izzy said no-one should feel guilty if they had already bought merchandise from a major retailer, and the focus should be more on calling out brands who could do more.

“It’s about empowering people to make a change, but while shouting at those who do have the power to make those changes,” the campaigner added.

They would also like to see customers support queer creatives wherever possible, not just for Pride merchandise but all year round.

Izzy added that more people were now aware of the origins of Pride, in that it is both a protest and a party, and are questioning if organisations getting involved are reflecting the right values.

“When I’ve been to prides across the UK, there are several corporate organisations with their rainbow logos in the parade, but you don’t see any community organisations, or people who try and join get kicked off and that’s the opposite of what should be happening,” they said.

“These brands should be helping, not taking up the space themselves – they are never going to change, unless we make them change.”

A spokesperson for Pride Cymru said: “Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have seen so many household names embracing Pride so openly in their brand and it is heartening for staff and customers to see that they are loved and valued.

“Although we do think profit sharing with LGBTQ+ charities should be considered on Pride themed merchandise, we also wholeheartedly agree that companies must have ethical supply chains, which enhance the rights of our LGBTQ+ family around the world.”

The Welsh Retail Consortium said retailers were keen to support the LGBTQ+ community.

“The selling of items that promote the LGBTQ+ community shows a huge step forward in the attitudes of the country towards this minority group, furthermore, nearly eighty leading retailers came together in 2021 to sign the WRC’s Diversity and Inclusion charter, which aims to embed better representation of minority groups, including LGBTQ+, within all levels of retail,” they said.

Singer Stephanie Webber from Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent, who will be performing on the Community Stage, said Pride could “give hope” to people who may be “struggling with certain issues”.

“Pride is so much fun because it is literally is all about love. Be who you are,” she said.


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