Green‑washing, pink‑washing and now rainbow‑washing: why authenticity is key when it comes to corporate responsibility









Dublin was just one of the many cities from around the world that came together last month to commemorate and celebrate the 2019 edition of the now landmark Pride parade championing LGBTQ+ rights.

Once outlawed and forcibly outcast, Pride is now popularly supported by both public institutions and private corporations, and is a widespread celebration for individuals and families from vast backgrounds and contexts. And this is of course a great thing, as a reflection of the incredible leaps the LGBTQ+ community have conquered in the last decades in terms of political, social and cultural transformations.

The day’s focus should be the living, breathing and continuous fight of the LGBTQ+ community towards equality and everything the term entails, and not the overwhelming number of private partners joining in the parade.

So what is the role of private companies when it comes to supporting these efforts? A float and a new avatar won’t count for much unless they are accompanied by a robust set of inclusive policies supporting diversity and a continuous promise to strive to do better.

In fact, recent years have evidenced how campaigns advertising inclusivity & diversity can actually be harmful to a brand’s reputation if not perceived as meaningful or authentic by their public.

Take the UK’s Home Office as a recent example. Sporting a rainbow logo in June is now en vogue; with the Home Office being just one of the many late adopters. Meanwhile, the government department was threatening to deport a gay asylum seeker to his home country where homosexuality is illegal. This case perfectly illustrates that it takes more than a rainbow flag on a logo to honour pride and the LGBTQ+ community.

In a highly saturated information and communications environment, not only are audiences more sceptical than ever before, they also have better transparency tools at their disposal to hold private companies of all shapes and sizes accountable. Pushing out messages of diversity and inclusivity voided of meaning could invite immense backlash and criticism.

In order to authentically engage, the following assessments should be made:

  1. What is your motivation?

With myriad of PR opportunities from broadsheet supplements to D&I op-eds, corporations can be just a photo call away from tarnishing its reputation if they fail to engage on an authentic level. It’s easy to get caught up in pride-fever and want in on the publicity, but before you rollout your rainbow merchandise taking a step back to assess why you want to engage and what you want to achieve is a good place to start.

  1. Are you making a substantial contribution to a LGBTQ+ cause?

Before hopping on your branded parade float ask yourself, does your company support for LGBTQ+ issues have any impact or is it just another rainbow flag on a billboard? The LGBTQ+ community has long been marginalised and underserved. It is important that corporations show up year-round and make a beneficial contribution, not just pay attention for one month of the year because it’s popular and politically correct to do so. A good way to be a corporate ally is to put your support behind issues that are important to the community, beyond the month of June.

  1. Is your position consistent?

Consistency is key to corporate responsibility. If you want to meaningfully engage with a marginalised community, it is crucial your causes line up.

Take Adidas for example; for a number of years the brand has shown its support of the LGBTQ+ community by releasing a range of rainbow merchandise for Pride Month. However, it was also one of the major sponsors of the 2018 World Cup, which took place in Russia, a country with severe anti-LGBTQ+ laws for citizens, fans and athletes alike. This contradiction shows a fundamental disconnect between the brand’s messaging and its actions, and portrays the brand’s rainbow merchandise to be just another money-making ploy. 

  1. Does management lead by example in fostering a truly equal corporate culture?

It’s important companies embrace LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusivity, but it needs to be consistent, thought-out and long-term.

Corporate support for the LGBTQ+ community should begin from within. Recent research shows a 16% pay gap between straight workers and their LGBTQ+ colleagues. The same research revealed that more than six in ten LGBTQ+ workers have been made to feel uncomfortable while working, with a third directly experiencing homophobic behaviour. This is a harsh reality many companies need to come to terms with and turn around before even considering joining in the rainbow-hype.

Therefore, before you begin your pride festivities, it’s worth considering:

  • Do you have strong anti-harassment policies in place and do you enforce them?
  • Are there equal opportunities for LGBTQ+ in the company?
  • Is there an LGBTQ+ pay gap?

Bottom line, Pride-related inclusivity and diversity initiatives can prove a win-win; by acting as allies championing their LGBTQ+ employees, partners and customers, brands will see a return in terms of employer brand, brand visibility and brand advocacy. This will only be the case though if these efforts are authentic, sustained and beneficial: a funky, rainbow coloured logo just won’t cut it anymore – and it probably never did.

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