Rainbow washing and performative DE&I: Can it still lead to meaningful change?

Rachel Edwards, AMI Senior Policy Adviser and D&I Lead, tells us her thoughts on rainbow washing - what is it, what are the pros and cons and can performative action actually be a good thing?

As Pride Month rolls around every June, a predictable and striking transformation occurs. Corporate logos take on a rainbow hue, social media campaigns celebrate diversity, and advertisements proudly feature same-sex couples. However, beneath this colourful display lies a controversial and complex issue: rainbow washing. 

The term rainbow washing refers to the practice of companies outwardly supporting LGBTQ+ rights, typically for profit or public relations, without substantial backing through their internal policies or broader social impact.

Examples of rainbow washing could be a multinational corporation that changes its social media avatars to rainbow versions for June but has a dismal track record on LGBTQ+ employee rights. Or a fashion brand releasing a Pride-themed collection, despite manufacturing their products in countries with anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Such actions raise questions about the sincerity of these companies’ commitment to the LGBTQ+ community.

Did you know...

As a sidenote, and relating to the wider issue of performative actions, did you know that Nike are currently using mannequins with prosthetic blades to advertise their products - however, when asked if they would consider selling single shoes for people with a single amputation, they said no!

A personal history

You might have noticed this month that the Working in Mortgages logo did not change. The reason for this (rather bizarrely) stems back to the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris – like many others at the time, I applied a filter to my Facebook profile picture in an attempt to show solidarity. I then spent the evening being absolutely emotionally eviscerated by university acquaintances that I could barely remember meeting. Several people were genuinely angry that I would partake in something that, in their eyes, was nothing more than dull performative activism with no substance. I distinctly remember one person telling me that ‘no one affected by the attacks is going to feel better knowing that Rachel from Nottingham changed her profile picture’. They were right of course, but at the time all I could think was ‘This is mortifying, I’m never repeating this experience again if I can help it’.

And that’s where my mind stayed for the next almost decade. I never entangled myself in any social media trend that could be seen as performative nonsense. I didn’t post anything for #metoo, or the BLM movement, or any watermelons for Palestine – all topics I feel very strongly about – because in my mind it wouldn’t mean anything. If I’m being really honest with myself, the desire to avoid embarrassing myself again actually morphed into a weird smugness – I stopped posting these things because it was beneath me and, because I’m actually doing meaningful work, I can’t lower myself to mere social media activism (I can assure you, even typing that out has made me cringe so much I might need to lay in a dark room for a bit).

You might be wondering where all this rambling is leading – the answer is that I have changed my mind. Both slowly, over time, and suddenly all at once. I have been thinking for years that performative activism is a slippery slope that can incite real change but it was a half-formed train of thought, one that only really seemed to present itself late at night when I really need to be asleep ahead of an early morning. The all-at-once change came rather recently in the form of William Lloyd-Hayward and Sim Sahota, when I was asked to participate in a Diversity and Inclusion in Finance Forum (DIFF) fishbowl .

Will mentioned that he, in the past, has been wary of the annual rainbow washing but had embraced it recently, as there’s no reason you can’t do the performative action of changing the logo whilst also doing the year-round push for progress. Sim spoke about how, for many firms engaging in the performative DE&I, the action inevitably leads to real progress – once DE&I has taken root it’s very difficult to stop it growing and evolving. And that was it, 9 years of stubbornness on my part was skillfully dismantled in a single morning by industry peers who probably had no idea that they had prompted such a turnaround of thought.

Pros and Cons of Performative Action

So, for anyone else that may be intrigued but not fully convinced yet, and missed the conversation at the DIFF fishbowl, I have helpfully compiled a list of the pros and cons of performative action as food for thought.

  • Pros of Performative Action

  • Cons of Performative Action

  • Boosts LGBTQ+ Visibility and Inclusion: when companies paint their logos with rainbow colours, it’s like a big, colourful hug for the LGBTQ+ community. This move makes LGBTQ+ employees and customers feel seen and valued, fostering a sense of belonging. It says, “Hey, we see you, and we support you”!

  • Rainbow-washing: if a company changes its logo without any real commitment to LGBTQ+ rights, people can see through this and call it out, potentially hurting the brand’s reputation. Real support means backing it up with year-round actions, like inclusive policies and support for LGBTQ+ initiatives. Otherwise, it might come off as just a temporary PR stunt.

  • Improves the Brand Image: brands that step up for social causes are often valued higher in the eyes of consumers. Supporting Pride Month can polish a company’s image, making it look progressive and socially conscious. Younger generations especially love brands that align with their values, so a rainbow logo can help win over these savvy consumers.

  • Pride commercialisation concerns: there’s a bigger issue at play too - the commercialisation of Pride. Pride started as a protest and continues to be a movement for equality - when companies jump on the bandwagon for marketing gains, it can dilute the movement’s core messages. No one wants Pride to turn into just another sales opportunity.

  • Happy Employees, Happy Life: showing love for LGBTQ+ rights can work wonders for employee morale, especially among LGBTQ+ staff. It signals that the workplace is safe and supportive, boosting job satisfaction and loyalty. Plus, it’s a magnet for diverse talent who want to work somewhere inclusive.

  • Risk of alienating some customers: this can lead to backlash from more conservative customers. Anyone whose been on the internet in the last 10 years will probably agree that the extremely vocal minority of conservative customers can be likened to a kicked hornet’s nest.

  • Sparking Conversations: a rainbow logo can kickstart important conversations about LGBTQ+ issues. It’s a chance to educate people and raise awareness about the significance of Pride Month. More awareness means less ignorance and more acceptance. Win-win!

  • Changing company logos to rainbow colours during Pride Month is a brilliant and vibrant way to show support for the LGBTQ+ community. However, it’s crucial for companies to back this up with genuine, year-round actions. By balancing the fun, colourful gesture with real substance, companies can truly make a positive impact and support the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

    I’ll be off now making a rainbow WiM logo ready for next year, if anyone feels like reaching out to discuss this topic further (or literally any other topic, I love talking about DE&I!), whether you agree or not, my virtual door is always open!