UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Mar 10, 2023

Rainbow washing is when companies signal support for the LGBTQ+ community, like adding rainbow colors to their marketing materials during Pride Month, without actually doing substantive work that helps members in the community.

Such superficial gestures “treat it as just a cash register performative kind of action,” said Cathy Renna, communications director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, a group that advocates for the freedom, justice and equality of LGBTQ people.

What Is Rainbow Washing?

Rainbow washing refers to a company’s superficial support of the LGBTQ+ community, often for marketing and PR purposes, without taking concrete actions to actually assist members in that community.

Two decades ago, slapping a rainbow sticker on your logo for one month a year was enough for brands to consider themselves “gay-friendly.” But the LGBTQ+ community can easily see through this corporate stunt. 

“We need real allies right now,” said Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the non-profit advocacy group National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “Those who know there are 364 days that aren’t Pride Sunday and are willing to support our community at work, in business and in society.”

Genuine support makes a real difference to LGBTQ members. The numbers bear that out, according to CMI Community Marketing & Insights.

LGBTQ Community Members' Views on Company Support

  • 76 percent feel more positively toward companies that sponsor LGBTQ organizations and events. 
  • 71 percent are more likely to make purchases from companies that reach out and advertise to the LGBTQ community.   
  • 67 percent agree companies that are supportive of LGBTQ-supportive companies had a positive impact on their LGBTQ employees. 
  • 53 percent agree corporations present at Pride events can be positive for the community.


Source: CMI’s 16th Annual LGBTQ Community Survey of 14,843 self-identified LGBTQ community members living in the U.S.

Although 53 percent of survey participants said a corporate presence at Pride events is good for the community, 31 percent were neutral and 16 percent considered it a negative.

“While advertising and supporting LGBTQ non-profits and events are critical to improving brand reputation, corporations need to politically defend LGBTQ equality and financially support community non-profits in order to be considered an authentic ally to the community,” the survey states.

In other words, corporate sponsors need to avoid rainbow washing by consistently showing up to support the community in other ways.

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How Is Rainbow Washing Harmful?

For the LGBTQ+ community, rainbow washing creates a false sense of support and is harmful to the community because it co-opts a symbol of pride and love and can just make it about a company’s image and bottom line, said Jennifer Chang, an HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

And that, as a result, can be upsetting. It marginalizes the community and can make members feel taken advantage of.

“It’s part of capitalism, but it marginalizes communities that have already been impacted by so many different issues in our lives, including discrimination in the workplace. You don’t want to feel taken advantage of, you don’t want to feel targeted,” Renna said. “You want to feel that behind that approach to you as a consumer, there’s also recognition of your humanity.”

“You want to feel that behind that approach to you as a consumer, there’s also recognition of your humanity.”

Companies can also face backlash for engaging in rainbow washing.

“Employers have been called out as hypocrites for throwing rainbow cups out in Pride parades or putting them on their merchandise, but then supporting political candidates and policymakers who actively vote against laws that protect the community and their rights as citizens,” Chang said.

Such action may prompt LGBTQ+ customers to boycott an establishment or manufacturer. But the same boycotts can also hurt the LGBTQ+ community members who are working at the company flagged for rainbow washing because that organization may have to resort to layoffs amid a drop in revenue or lost small business contracts, Nelson said.

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How to Avoid Rainbow Washing

A number of steps can be taken to avoid rainbow washing, even ones that cost very little to implement and others that can be done fairly quickly.

Here are a few steps to put your rainbow washing away.

Ways to Avoid Rainbow Washing

  • Support the formation of an LGBTQ+ employee resource group.  
  • Conduct community outreach.  
  • Ramp up your involvement in the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Change your assumptions.
  • Consider how your companys actions would be received.
  • Evaluate political contributions. 

 

Support the Formation of an LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group

Provide support for forming an employee resource group for LGBTQ+ members at your company. Use LGBTQ+ ERG members to help ensure that healthcare benefits, policies and procedures are inclusive of this segment of your workforce, Chang said.

IBM, for example, involves all of its LGBTQ+ groups in its initiatives that involve the community so together they can drive change, Ella Slade, global LGBTQ+ leader at IBM, told Built In. Some of those initiatives include IBM’s Pride Month plans and its annual planning strategy.

 

Conduct Community Outreach

Take the time to get to know your local community LGBTQ+ organizations. Educate yourself on who the different groups are, their missions or purpose and their needs, Renna said. Then start to do community outreach to those organizations.

Slade said to take it back to the basics: “Engage the LGBTQ+ community and once you’ve got them engaged and you’ve got your employees engaged in diversity inclusion initiatives, you can then build from there and create a solid foundation of support.”

 

Ramp Up Your Involvement

Authenticity is key, so offer support and partner with the LGBTQ+ community throughout the year, not just for Pride Month.

“If you literally hang a rainbow flag out because you want people to come in and the rest of the year you don’t do anything, people notice,” Renna said. “It’s about year-round support. It’s about substantive support.”

 

Change Your Assumptions

Many LGBTQ+ outreach campaigns fail to understand the diversity of the community they’re trying to reach, Renna said.

“The reality is we’re just as diverse as society in general. The LGBTQ+ community is a microcosm of the larger culture,” Renna said. “Our community supports organizations that use inclusive marketing and outreach, representing the diversity of our community.”

“We’re homeowners, business owners, teachers and doctors. Not every ad has to be about going and partying. The banality is real too.”

Nelson drove home a similar point, noting advertisements should be inclusive and show LGBTQ+ women, veterans, people of color and those with disabilities.

“We’re just like everyone else. Create and showcase real situations,” Nelson said. “We’re homeowners, business owners, teachers and doctors. Not every ad has to be about going and partying. The banality is real too.”

 

COnsider How your Company’s Actions Would Be Received

Before adding rainbows to all your products during Pride Month or any other event, sit down and evaluate how your LGBTQ+ actions would be perceived by employees or people on the outside looking in, Chang said. Then run your assumptions by employees, friends and associates who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Ask them based on what they know of the company, would your actions be perceived as rainbow washing or an authentic gesture to show support?

 

Evaluate Political Contributions 

On the political front, dig into where your candidate stands on LGBTQ+ policies, laws and pending bills before making a corporate campaign donation. After all, your customers may check out your stance to see if you’re rainbow washing, especially if you show up at a Pride event.

“From Florida to Texas and anywhere our rights are under attack, we will be watching who in the corporate community celebrates Pride in June, but remains silent when our young people are under attack throughout the rest of the year,” Nelson said.

 

Examples of Authentic Support, Not Rainbow Washing

Despite the existence of some companies engaging in blatant rainbow washing, their numbers are on the decline, according to Nelson.

Examples of Rainbow Washing

  • Rebranding company logos with rainbow colors, but not taking action beyond that.
  • Having employees participate in Pride parades and marches.
  • Featuring LGBTQ+ employees in marketing materials while failing to take steps to make LGBTQ employees feel safe in the workplace.
  • Posting content in support of the LGBTQ+ community while donating to organizations that undermine LGBTQ rights.
  • Developing LGBTQ merchandise and social content without consulting with LGBTQ employees and community members.

“It’s less and less every year as our community expects more and more authentic support from companies,” Nelson said. “And with more young people, like Gen Z, identifying as LGBTQ+ than ever before, the next generation is going to demand even more from the brands they support.”

Companies are showing authentic support in a number of ways. Here are some examples of how they are doing it.

 

Pushing Back Against Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation

Apple is taking action through the courts and teaming up with other Fortune 500 companies to oppose anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in states like Iowa, Texas and Florida. The company has also refused to set up operations in certain states and regions of the world that discriminate against LGBTQ members, Renna said.

 

Creating a Company-Wide Pronoun Framework 

IBM’s support and efforts around creating a framework for pronoun use by employees is among its largest LGBTQ+ initiatives, Slade said. Since 2019, employees have been able to set their pronouns on the company’s HR system, which filters through the employee directory. As the company’s global LGBTQ+ leader, Slade has worked to expand the pronoun options and is also working with IBM’s branding team to ensure pronouns are part of the brand guidance that comes with email signatures.

“We did an internal video featuring some of our most senior leaders talking about why sharing their pronouns was important,” they said. “This, and along with a lot of other work we have done in this space, has helped create an inclusive culture at IBM where employees are able to be themselves.”

IBM also has created a framework to support employees who come out as transgender. The framework was developed over the years with the collaboration of members of IBM’s LGBTQ+ community.

 

Providing Scholarships to Transgender and Gender-Expansive Businesses

Wells Fargo has made one of the largest investments to date in transgender and gender-expansive businesses. It teamed up with the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce to offer a scholarship to help transgender and gender-expansive businesses secure LGBT Business Enterprise certification.

 

Extending Health and Insurance Benefits to Same-Sex Partners

The beloved ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s was one of the first U.S. companies to offer health and insurance benefits to same-sex partners in the late 1980s. And when same-sex marriages were legalized in Vermont, the company temporarily changed the name of its Chubby Hubby ice cream to Hubby Hubby ice cream.

 

Giving Cardholders Flexible Name Options

Mastercard launched a program, True Name, that allows cardholders of certain participating banks to use their first name on their credit card without having to get a legal name change. 

These company efforts are among a growing trend to move beyond rainbow washing and make authentic efforts to support the LGBTQ+ community.

“I’ve been doing this work for the past 30 years and when I started doing this, we had very few corporate sponsors for Pride events,” Renna said. “Now, we joke, they’re falling all over each other to participate in these events and it’s not just for Pride Month, but all year round.”

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