Rainbow Washing: How Insincere Branding Tarnishes Pride And Similar Celebrations Of Communities

Brands will likely get in on the action if a holiday or point of remembrance is coming up.

Corporate holiday endeavors often focus on profit, not the people and cultures being celebrated. June's Pride has become a prime example as companies target the community's buying power of approximately $917 billion in 2019.

To put it lightly, mistakes have been made over the years. Walmart Inc's WMT recent foray into Juneteenth ice cream represents an example of how branding and cultural celebrations go wrong.

Rainbow washing, sometimes known as pinkwashing or rainbow retail, is a long-running critical concern. The practice uses LGBTQ imagery and themes for profit without donating funds or additional support during June or any time otherwise. Similar actions can be found during Black History Month and other days, weeks or months focused on specific groups.

With long-running concerns that Pride is turning into a branded holiday, cannabis insiders shared how pot companies can be allies while boosting their brands.

What Is Rainbow Washing?

Rainbow washing comes in various forms.

The most common example is when a brand changes its logo to a rainbow for the month. Another regular occurrence finds companies rolling out Pride products, pocketing all earnings from LGBTQ-focused sales without offering support to organizations or efforts.

Lex Corwin, CEO and founder of Stone Road said rainbow washing also includes false depictions of minority-owned brands. He reports finding various cannabis brands claiming to be queer-owned on platforms like Nabis and Eaze without having LGBTQ leadership.

Corwin commends companies for wanting to support but feels they're incorrectly meeting the movement.

At the same time, he calls the change a shift in corporate culture. "It used to be where companies didn't give a shit about targeting black or queer people." 

Cannabis, like most other sectors, has stumbled in its allyship.

"Companies need to realize that having the right intentions and really walking the walk is paramount," said Brendon Lynch, EVP of retail at Jushi Holdings Inc. JUSHF.

Lynch said improper corporate allies do so in various ways, from failing to create inclusive workplaces to supporting anti-LGBTQ legislators.

Others discussed their concern over support for anti-LGBTQ legislation. Renee Gagnon, founder of Thunderbird Biomedical Inc, now Emerald Health Therapeutics Inc EMH and the first transgender female CEO of a publicly-traded marijuana company, said brands need to understand that allyship and donating to anti-LGBTQ legislation doesn't mix.

"I think that that's a devil's bargain that cannabis companies are making, which undermines any attempt at any LGBTQ stuff they say," Gagnon said.

Earlier this month, Amazon.com, Inc. AMZN, AT&T Inc. T and FedEx Corporation FDX were identified as part of a group of 25 leading companies to have donated over $10 million to anti-LGBTQ legislators. Each has made Pride-based campaigns in recent years.

Kassia Graham, director of community and strategy for Cannaclusive agrees. She recommends companies consider who they align with. Graham highlighted the recent blowback New York City venue Chelsea Piers received for hosting an event featuring Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who signed into law the "Don't Say Gay" bill.

Despite offering to donate funds from the event to queer groups, Graham feels "This did not go over well with the queer community in New York and elsewhere."

How Common Is Rainbow Washing In Cannabis?

Most sources had difficulty gauging how common rainbow washing has become. Opinions varied when asked about the motives behind industry Pride campaigns, but most felt at least half were not sincere.

"Of the ones that do contribute, it's hard to say what percentage is genuine giving," said Neil Lequia, founder and board president of cannabis-industry LGBTQ organization The Full Spectrum.

Lequia did not provide an estimate but cited a 2022 Reboot report stating that roughly one-third of Pride campaigns fail to donate to queer causes.

Jushi's Lynch estimated that disingenuine cannabis campaigns edged out well-intentioned efforts at around 60-40.

Others stated that rainbow washing tips more heavily toward the disingenuous.

Tyme Ferris, CEO and founder of The Pantheon Collective, said the current landscape "is easily a 1:20 ratio with the majority of cannabis, and other industries, not supporting their forward-facing narrative."

Kait Grey, office and events manager for Dip Devices, didn't offer a figure but does feel rainbow washing is present in the cannabis space.

Grey wonders why that's the case. "Considering the shared persecution of cannabis and the LGBTQIA+ communities spanning decades, you'd assume the cannabis community would have some empathy toward other mutually stifled communities."

Matte Namer, CEO and founder of Cannabeta Realty, also did not offer any figures but rather highlighted the importance of ownership.

"I always love seeing cannabis brands that are owned by members of the LGBTQ community because the marketing is often so much more inclusive," Namer said.

Making Genuine Corporate Efforts

Consumers and companies alike can do their part to cut out rainbow washing.

The most straightforward efforts for consumers boil down to finding brands that donate Pride earnings to LGBTQ endeavors. Though arguably the best metric is gauging which brands provide support outside the designated June Pride period.

For companies, it's first about creating a culture.

"A good starting point to get on a better path would be taking a hard look at how you drive change in your own backyard," Jushi's Lynch said. He called on creating an inclusive company, working with diverse partners, and supporting underrepresented operators.

Full Spectrum's Lequia recommends hiring outside advisors and calling on elected officials regarding potentially discriminatory legislation.

"It takes more than a rainbow logo to be an ally," Lequia said, calling on brands to take affirmative action.

Lgbtq photo created by freepik - www.freepik.com

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