• Anna Hattig

Practice what you Preach

Pinkwashing as a marketing scheme during Pride month

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Pride month is a time of celebration, of activism, of raising awareness. The flags representing the LGTBQ+ community are seen everywhere, most prominently the rainbow colours. Starting June, the six colours of the pride flag pop up on clothing, accessories, brand logos and in sports, often accompanied by slogans, images, statements.

The public display of corporate and governmental support and allyship for the LGTBQ+ community is undoubtedly detrimental to the continued strive for a more colourful, accepting society. Recently, the UEFA’s quarrel with football players’ and host cities’ decision to wear and show the pride flag throughout the European Championship has stirred controversy.

The planned decoration of the Munich stadium in the pride colours in response to the newly introduced Hungarian anti-homosexual legislation was shut down, but shows the power private and public entities have in choosing to let symbols speak against hate and ignorance.

But praise for corporations who print, expose and sell pride symbols should not go unchallenged. Unquestionably, the driving force behind this decision is money. And that is not in itself a bad thing: It is in the nature of private corporations to seek profit and the fact that profit can be made by selling pride colours gives hope about how far we have come as a society. However, many of those companies that can be seen in the first row of pride-related merchandising throughout the month of June are accused of "Pinkwashing". And that is something to reflect on.

The term “Pinkwashing” was first introduced in another context: Some pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. were publicly showing support for the fight against breast cancer by, for example printing the symbolic pink ribbon on products, but were at the same time developing cosmetics highly correlated with a raised risk for breast cancer.

An uproar in civil society exposed the hypocrisy behind this method, of on the one hand profiting off of the alleged allyship with a publicly accepted cause, but on the other hand contributing to the worsening of that same exact situation.

And this is where pride month and big corporations’ profiting off of the LGTBQ+ symbols comes in. While we all know of the power of symbols, they alone are not enough to deem a company a true ally to the cause. The entity’s actions need to reflect those symbols of support. Only as long as a corporation is internally diverse, inclusive and offers a safe space to LGTBQ+ employees, does a publicly shown pride flag ring true. Otherwise, symbols only remain symbols and in some cases they become a mockery.

The good news first: The past decade has seen rapid increase in internal non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity in almost all of the biggest companies of the world. But now the bad news: Workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, is still a common experience for LGTBQ+ employees everywhere.

A 2019 British report found that more than two thirds of queer employees had been sexually harassed at work and the vast majority did not report the instance. Why? 25% were forced to stay quiet about their experience by fear of being outed at work.

Implementing internal non-discrimination policies is important. But where a vast number of queer employees face - amongst others: invasive questions about their private and sex life, sexual jokes and comments, invitations to sexual activities with someone from the other sex to “make you straight”, sexual assault and where they have to fear that the knowledge of coworkers and managers about their sexual orientation or gender identity could seriously hinder their progression in the company, those policies are clearly not enough.

The problem with Pinkwashing, as the name implies, is that it tries to wash a company clean of problems related to the LGTBQ+ struggle in the public eye. But rather than investing millions in the marketing of a pride friendly image to the outside, companies should turn an eye as well as financial means to internal structures. Only the implementation of ample and sustainable policies, developed by listening to the experiences and needs of those affected, can really create a safe work environment.

Only then can companies call themselves allies to the cause. Because the struggle for acceptance, for inclusion and for true diversity does not begin on June 1st, and does not end when the month is over and rainbow flags disappear from shop windows.


Written By: Anna Hattig, Research Ambassador at Metta Space

Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R & D at Metta Space

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