Worried about rainbow capitalism? Here are 5 Pride Month shopping tips to know
Rainbow-washing is real—here's how to avoid it
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The month of June is a time for celebration and remembrance within the LGBTQ+ community. But it’s also a period wherein major brands release tons of Pride-themed merchandise, a practice some label as “rainbow capitalism.”
Kimberley Ring, a marketing professor at Suffolk University and founder of Ring Communications, an integrated marketing firm, noted that the term is usually attributed to companies that are seen as leveraging rainbows and other aspects of LGBTQ+ culture to sell merchandise during Pride Month, without doing anything else to help the community throughout the rest of the year. “Some brands will say they support [the LGBTQ+ community], but if you follow a trail and it ends at a product page, how much support is really there?” she added.
As a shopper during Pride Month, it can be difficult to reconcile your desire to visibly show support by rocking rainbows with concerns about giving money to a brand that isn’t genuinely invested in promoting LGBTQ+ rights and causes. And if you’re actually a member of the LGBTQ+ community—which has a purchasing power worth an estimated $917 billion in the U.S., according to 2015 findings by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce—it can be even more challenging to figure out where you stand.
Should you skip the Pride-inspired merch altogether this year, especially in light of how much recent criticism there’s been on TikTok and Reddit? Not necessarily, say experts. “I don’t think it's inherently bad or problematic to buy or sell rainbow or Pride merchandise, but it is important to consider the source,” said Ali Fazal, vice president of marketing at GRIN, an influencer marketing software company, in an email interview.
With that in mind, here are five Pride Month shopping tips to consider, especially if you want to make sure your purchases are not only fun, but help make a difference for the LGBTQ+ community, as well.
1. Consider what your values are
“We’re living in a world of empowered consumerism,” said Ring. “We want to buy from brands that share our common interests, [and] that we can think of as extensions of who we really are.”
In years past “[a] brand wasn’t supposed to take on missions or speak up for causes,” noted Ring, but because shoppers—especially younger ones—are more “value-centric” in how they spend their money than previous generations (a 2021 report of Gen Z consumer habits by global consultancy group Bain & Company, in collaboration with fashion retailer Depop, also supported this), companies have adapted. According to Ring, businesses are now forthcoming about supporting traditionally marginalized groups, like the LGBTQ+ community.
For someone trying to be conscientious, it means it’s important to not only think about where you spend your money, but what your core values are, and how much a particular brand does or doesn’t reflect that. Only by being proactive can you really determine what matters most to you, and from there, figure out whether or not a business is truly aligned with it.
2. Don’t start with the products—start with the causes
“If we’re at the point where Pride is so accepted and so celebrated that you can make a lot of money off products that are Pride-centric, then we’re also probably at a point where [brands] need to go further in terms of corporate responsibility,” said Margo Kahnrose, chief marketing officer of Skai, a marketing intelligence company.
According to a 2021 survey by Piplsay, a consumer insights research firm, 60% of Americans want institutions to empower the LGBTQ+ community. Further, 14% of Americans have or intend to lend support during Pride Month by shopping LGBTQ+ businesses, while 12% revealed they would do so by purchasing Pride-themed merchandise, suggesting a link between consumer spending and support for Pride.
Buying directly from LGBTQ+ businesses can be a great way to show your support throughout Pride Month and beyond. If you’re shopping from a business that isn’t LGBTQ+-owned, experts recommend considering brands that are giving back to the LGBTQ+ community via donations. “Look into the amount of that donation and whether you feel it’s meaningful relative to their revenue,” said Kahnrose.
Businesses focusing on intersectionality and giving back to “minorities, indigenous people, and other marginalized groups [within] the LGBTQ+ community” might also be good to shop from, noted Fazal.
The Corporate Equality Index, a tool developed by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation to rate corporate policies and practices toward the LGBTQ+ community, can also help you figure out which brands are “going beyond talk and are making a difference,” added Kahnrose.
Another useful shopping strategy during Pride Month, according to Ring, is to look at community-based LGBTQ+ organizations. “A lot of brands will create a Pride-related product, but partner with a local organization,” she said. By researching charitable LGBTQ+ groups (instead of going straight for products), you can ensure that your money is going directly toward a cause you believe in.
“If you Google ‘Pride flag,’ it’s going to bring up every shopping site that there is,” added Ring. “But if you start with organizations, even just through a simple search query, you’ll probably find that they have Pride gear or have partnered with a brand that does.”
3. Look at a brand’s social media
Representation matters. A 2018 survey by Community Marketing & Insights, an LGBTQ+-focused business research firm, found that 78% of LGBTQ+ community members said they tend to support companies that market to and support LGBTQ+ people.
And when it comes to marketing, social media is one of the most effective discovery tools brands can use to engage with potential shoppers. A 2018 report by GWI, a market research company, revealed that 54% percent of browsers use social media to research products.
“Social media is a medium where [brands] can’t afford to be inauthentic,” said Kahnrose. “If you’re looking for brands that are truly authentic and are putting their money where their mouth is and walking the walk, I think social media is where you can start to see that.”
Brands using their channels for storytelling and to surface LGBTQ+ content, artists, and creators throughout the year are more likely to seem authentic to users who are invested in the community. As a shopper, social media cues that “speak your language,” such as a business showcasing LGBTQ+ models of all races and sizes, can also help you better assess a brand’s values and see if they align with your own.
But also, think critically. “If a company seems to be hopping on a trend for the sake of doing so, or if it feels like their involvement in Pride is very different for them, it should be a telling sign that it isn't part of their DNA,” said Fazal.
4. Research a brand’s internal practices—and ask questions
Pride is more than just a big parade or celebration, and according to Ring, it’s a great time to learn about LGBTQ+ history, as “taking the time to learn that can be very valuable.” As you do, you may want to research brands too, and see what they’re doing to support LGBTQ+ organizations and causes throughout the year. Experts say it can help you gauge a brand’s authenticity and see how committed to the community they really are.
“Organizations need to [learn] from Pride internally and not only externally,” said Fazal. “Just posting on social media and not doing anything to celebrate [and/or] highlight important issues shows a lack of authenticity.”
Researching a company’s culture can help you learn more about it and what resources are made available to LGBTQ+ staff. As you learn more about brands, you may want to ask yourself:
- What impact has this brand had on the LGBTQ+ community overall?
- How is this brand amplifying the work of LGBTQ+ artists and creators?
- Is its team and executive board diverse?
- What support or employee resource groups does this brand offer to LGBTQ+ employees?
- Is the imagery they use on social media inclusive throughout the year, or just during Pride Month?
By being proactive and researching before you buy something, you can make more informed purchasing decisions. But Kahnrose also believes it’s worth noting when major brands do take a stand, because they don’t actually have to.
“We can always look at these things as cynics or skeptics and say, ‘brands just want to make money,’ but there’s a lot of ways for brands to make money,” she noted. “When [brands like Target] take a stand and say, ‘We want to bring awareness to Pride Month, and we want to celebrate it and here’s our capsule collection and the donation we’re making,’ at the end of the day, they’re still making a choice to support something.”
5. Be vocal
In one legendary scene from the AMC television series Mad Men, ad man Don Draper says, “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.” But if you’re a shopper and you don’t like what is actually being done, you can change the conversation, too—and specifically, you can do it by holding brands accountable when it comes to important issues like Pride Month.
“Consumers have a voice that matters,” said Kahnrose. If you want a popular brand to do more for Pride, tell them so. Whether through social media, email, or other modes of communication, sharing your feedback can be a good way to let a brand know what you like and what you think could change. “I think brands are definitely listening,” she added. “They want to know how they’re being perceived.”
Even though rainbow capitalism is a problem, experts say you don’t have to forgo Pride Month shopping, especially if you look forward to rainbow-themed merchandise every year. “The issues are with corporations who engage in rainbow capitalism, not the consumers who buy merchandise,” said Fazal.
In fact, in certain areas where there isn’t a large LGBTQ+ community, Pride merchandise may be “the only chance [LGBTQ+ people and allies] have to see it visualized,” he added. In those instances, a “rainbow blazer can kick off a discussion or get [people] thinking, [and] at the end of the day, I believe it is net positive.”
For you as a shopper, experts say just be vocal, keep learning, and dedicate your time and resources to purchases that you feel will be impactful for the community, too.