Once outlawed and powerfully ostracised, Pride is now popularly supported internationally by both public and private organisations, and is a widespread celebration of diversity and inclusion. While this is undoubtedly a great thing, and is a reflection of the incredible leaps the LGBTQIA+ community has conquered over past decades, brands that are perceived to be engaging in “rainbow-washing”have received fierce criticism in recent times.
So, what is ‘rainbow-washing’?
Urban dictionary defines it as “the act of using or adding rainbow colors and/or imagery to advertising, apparel, accessories, landmarks, etc, in order to indicate progressive support for LGBTQ equality (and earn consumer credibility) -- but with a minimum of effort or pragmatic result.” Sound similar to green-washing? You’re not wrong.
The rainbow flag is arguably the most visible and tangible representation of the LGBTQIA+ movement. Given its highly political origins, the use of this powerful symbol in a commercial context - on packaging, logos, advertising, websites, social media, and store fronts - can be, and often is, perceived as strained and artificial.
An unfortunate example of hastily retro-fitted packaged goods being emblazoned with rainbow messaging is the Marks and Spencer “LGBT” sandwich from 2019 Pride, which some slammed as in authentic and merely virtue-signalling, despite the retail chain’s seemingly good intentions (having pledged to donate to charities that support the LGBTQIA+community).
Marketing experts are saying that to avoid public criticism, brands should get involved and support Pride only if their efforts are authentic, sustained and beneficial to the cause; a snazzy, temporarily-rainbow-coloured logo just won’t cut it now –and it probably never did. But is there also a risk that rainbow-washing could violate consumer law, as we’ve seen with green-washing?
A fundamental premise of New Zealand consumer law is that traders should only make claims in relation to their goods/services if they have a reasonable and honest basis for doing so, and must not engage in misleading and deceptive conduct in the course of trade.
In 2008, the Commerce Commission's Director of Fair Trading said "the growing trend to green-washing by businesses is cause for concern if the green, eco-friendly or sustainability claims are false or misleading. In fact, the Commission has identified this as a new focus area, due to the proliferation overseas of such claims in marketing hype”. Since then, the Commerce Commission has investigated several traders in relation to environmental claims, resulting in warnings and in some cases fines under the Fair Trading Act 1986.
Whether rainbow-washing receives the same regulatory response as green-washing did is likely to depend on the extent to which it actually influences purchasing decisions of consumers. Some might think that a temporary rainbow logo has no real bearing on consumer choice, but could there be a future in which purchasing decisions are influenced as much by protecting LGBTQIA+ rights as they are for protecting the environment? I would like to think it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.