Eric Yaverbaum (pictured), CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communications, media, and public relations expert with over 40 years in the industry and the best selling author of Public Relations for Dummies. In this opinion piece, he explores how brands get Pride wrong by tokenising their LGBTQIA+ customers.
There’s a meme-ified phrase that’s been going around the internet for a while: “there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism.” I’ve run into it more than once just browsing social media, occasionally posted on an image of Sonic the Hedgehog for reasons clearly beyond my ken.
My impulse is to reject it; I’m a business owner and entrepreneur myself, and it’s a very uncomfortable idea to sit with. What is “ethical consumption,” and what makes it impossible in a capitalist society?
That’s been on my mind this past month. I’m lucky enough to work with talented and intelligent young people with their fingers far closer to the figurative pulse of things, and with June being Pride Month and all, from them I’ve gotten wind of some of the larger discourse (from primarily within the LGBTQ community) regarding what they colorfully call “rainbow-washing,” pun generously intended. If you, like me, have been largely unaware of this term, it’s what people call the practice of companies slapping rainbow color schemes on their logos and products or generally making a big, self-congratulatory (and goodwill-seeking) show of sharing a pro-LGBTQ social media post while simultaneously donating to politicians or engaging in practices that further marginalize that very same community.
Essentially, the argument goes, these companies are trying to project—and capitalize on—an ethical air without actual ethics. Thus, “there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism” because no matter who you support, either they themselves or other bad actors in their supply line have tainted your purchase with sweatshops, or blood diamonds, or prison labor, or—in this case—providing extensive financial support to the political activities of people committed to the effective public removal of LGBTQ folks from everyday life.
Apart from the moral questions—which, I know, is just a rhetorical convenience where real people’s lives are involved, which cannot be separated from those same moral questions—corporate leadership needs to be much more acutely aware of the risk they’re taking with their brands and their credibility at the potential cost of losing access to a global trillion-dollar market colloquially referred to as “pink money.”
On top of that, millennials—the largest single purchasing demographic in the United States—have long placed a premium on buying from companies that reflect their values, including their strongly pro-LGBTQ ones. Trying to have it both ways by exploiting Pride imagery and language for some cheap public goodwill while at the same time supporting politicians who would lower corporate taxes even further is a recipe for disaster.
CVS, for example, both signed a Human Rights Campaign pro-LGBTQ statement while donating money to key figures in the anti-transgender movement, including those who would support criminalizing providing minors with trans-affirmative care. Same with AT&T, and Comcast, and Walmart. And UnitedHealth. And General Motors. And UPS. And Home Depot.
Now, I’m not saying—and to the best of my knowledge, nobody else is either—that these companies are operating primarily out of bigotry and malice. Modern corporations are machines designed to make money as efficiently as possible, and don’t really have principles like that beyond “will or will not any given action create additional value for shareholders?” That’s not malice; it’s simple, brute indifference to the suffering of others in the service of wealth, helpfully mediated by a couple of degrees of removal.
Now, the “there is no ethical consumption” dynamic goes both ways, and many of these companies justify their behavior by saying that they don’t necessarily support the activities of the politicos they finance, which, I mean, fair enough.
There is absolutely reasonable space to be drawn between a given individual or organization and those they do business with the same way my decision to purchase some bread doesn’t amount to endorsing the actions of the guy who made it, even though I am indirectly financially supporting those actions.
That’s the very definition of “no ethical consumption,” although one must consider the fact that buying a loaf of bread despite the baker being a jerk and backing lawmakers despite the material harm they continue to inflict as a matter of public policy.
There are no secrets anymore, and there is immense social utility for millennials in simply dropping you like a stone. Your donations will be made public, your values scrutinized, and your villainous bona fides reified in dollars and cents regardless of why you donated.
If you back a politician pushing draconian anti-transgender legislation because he’s also involved in tech policy, that fact doesn’t erase the consequences of such legislation’s passage, nor the memories of those who may have once supported you before the disclosure. Your actions must comport with your stated values or your customers will feel betrayed, lied to, and manipulated by the very brand you’re trying to elevate.
Perhaps you can see the nuclear risk of such complacency in the notion of an ignorant consumer base. If you’re going to slap a rainbow over your logo, do your homework first: identify what else your political donations are being used for and cut that relationship off if it goes against your stated values.
There’s quite a bit to be gained from that, too; a public statement of ceasing to donate to or do business with anti-LGBTQ people or organizations followed by clear, decisive action to that effect will boost your standing, encourage buyers already skeptical of the capitalist impulse to mentally file you away as a Good Company™, and potentially earn you a customer for life.
So stop saying one thing, while doing another. Hypocrisy is death in 2021 for those who won’t.
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