What is Rainbow Washing?


Woman standing in front of wall painted with rainbow stripes

Rainbow Washing sounds like something that’s meant to be fun…like a gay carwash, or a laundromat that exclusively plays songs from Mariah Carey’s 1999 chart-topping album ‘Rainbow’.

Unfortunately, it’s nothing of the sort.

June has arrived, so that means it’s that special time of year where big corporations roll out the rainbow carpet, transforming their social media platforms into technicolour landscapes, overlaying their logos with a rainbow, parading their queer co-workers as props, getting queer celebrities to endorse their ‘pride’ merch, and hell, vaguely inferring to donate to queer charities.

…But just as quickly as it comes, it leaves. Alike the week following Sydney’s Mardi Gras, on July 1st, the bright colours disappear, and the LGBTIQ+ community are all sent back to normal with a rainbow sized hole in their pockets, while the corporations count their profits.

What Is Rainbow Washing?

In simple, ‘Rainbow Washing’ is the act of adding rainbow colours and/or using LGBTQ+ symbols on anything from clothing and toasters to fast food restaurants or ride-sharing apps. This is done to signify a company’s ~progressive support~ of the LGBTQ+ community and to earn the queer community’s trust.

Although this all sounds great, more often than not, this show of ‘LGBTIQ+ support’, is nothing more than a performative act of allyship, or even just an act of outright marketing, with no real tangible LGBTIQ+ support at all.

Pride is so much more than just using the hashtag #lovewins and slapping a rainbow flag on something. The LGBTQ+ flag has historically been used to represent the queer community’s fight against oppression and celebrate how far we’ve come.

Although being an incredibly important symbol to the queer community, you name it, and chances are that someone’s put a rainbow on it and tried to sell it.

Why Does Rainbow Washing Matter?

Because it gives the illusion that a business is an LGBTIQ+ ally, when often, that’s simply not the case.

Of course, a company changing their logo to incorporate LGBTIQ+ representation in June or at Mardi Gras to showcase their support for the queer community is a great thing. Something we encourage all businesses to do.

However, for a business to call themselves an ‘LGBTIQ+ ally’, it’s so much more than a rainbow logo.

It’s actively hiring LGBTIQ+ staff members, it’s donating a portion of profits from pride marketing activity to queer charities, it’s working with LGBTIQ+ business wherever able to, and most importantly, it’s all-year round. Not just a week or a month here or there.

If not, it’s unfortunately rainbow washing. It’s not being an ally, it’s just marketing.

Why Does Rainbow Washing Happen?

Big companies recognise the growing economic power of the queer dollar. The LGBTIQ+ community’s buying power, commonly referred to as the ‘pink dollar’, has been valued at $3.7 trillion dollars globally – a lot of cash, right!?

With research indicating that upwards of 90% of the gay community support businesses that support the LGBTIQ+ community, while actively boycotting anti-gay businesses (Business: The Economy: The Pink Pound), it’s no surprise that big business are willing to play dress up for a month, to secure that coin.

Why Do We Need to Stop It?

The reason it’s so damaging is that well-intentioned people support these corporations, with the intention of being a good queer ally, when in all actuality, they’re just giving more money to multibillion dollar businesses who are failing to create any real change for the LGBTQ+ community.

The continued monetisation of the rainbow flag means that it can easily be used to promote disingenuous allyship. It’s become more about sponsorships, celebrity endorsements, making that bread, and less about amplifying the most vulnerable voices in the community or raising awareness.

How Can You Help?

As queer people (and allies), we of course want to support the businesses that are supporting our community. The easiest way you can help, it to make sure that the LGBTIQ+ allies that you’re spending with, are indeed allies.

If a company is an LGBTQ+ ally, you can easily look for signs, such as:

  • They address issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community
  • They donate to queer charities
  • They work with and support LGBTIQ+ businesses
  • It’s part of what the company stands for (year-round)
  • They pay LGBTQ+ artists adequately for their work
  • They positively spotlight queer employees
  • They have policies to protect queer employees
  • They are transparent about their support and where that pink dollar is going

We’ll leave you with this – putting a rainbow up for one month every year, isn’t allyship. It’s marketing.

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