Pride Month and other profitable movements.
'Seriously- we love the gays! (But only during June when we can make money from you.)'
Every June pride month rolls around and big companies are quick to jump on the bandwagon. As they release their merchandise people are even quicker to criticise them, and 'Rainbow Capitalism' as a whole. The first thing I saw when going on Pinterest to look for the flag photo was 'Pride Month Shop', and if that doesn't illustrate how commodified this movement has become, I don't know what will.
In case you are unfamiliar, rainbow capitalism is defined by Wikipedia as 'the incorporation of the LGBT movement, sexual diversity, and pinkwashing to capitalism, consumerism, gentrification, and the market economy, viewed especially in a critical lens as this incorporation pertains to the LGBT, Western, white, and affluent, upper middle class communities and market.'
In short, it's when businesses see pride month and other LGBTQ+ celebrations as a new market, rather than the commemoration of key figures and the acceptance of the community. With a buying power of $3.7 trillion from LGBT adults, it makes sense that businesses would want to appeal to this demographic, but it is too often ingenuine, and we as consumers should be mindful of this.
The major problem here is when a company releases pride merchandise, but makes no strides for inclusivity, or is actively homophobic and/or transphobic the rest of the year. We could talk in circles for hours about the obvious immorality of this, but I would rather dive deeper into some of the more grey areas.
I have been using rainbow capitalism as a catalyst for this essay, but from this point on I will be talking more generally about other issues- be it climate justice, ableism, racism, deforestation, fatphobia (to name a few).
Businesses are increasingly coming out with merchandise bearing slogans that express support for various marginalised groups or progressive movements. BLM phone cases, feminist posters and save the turtles t-shirts, to name a few. Again, there is the major problem of the company's policies not matching their messages, but that's not what needs discussion. Is it okay to profit off historical oppression or current issues as long as you are making strides to fix those issues? Time for a case study! Tunnel Vision, a small clothing brand based in LA. It's owned by @madeline_pendleton (on TikTok), who I have admittedly been following for a while so this study won't be entirely devoid of bias. Her brand is sweatshop-free, small batch made and her and her 7 co-workers all earn the same amount. Their environmental policies, however, are vague on their website, only saying 'We are looking for ways to move into more ethically-sustainable fabric sourcing, too, and plan on adding more bamboo and other easily renewable fibers to our collections in the near future!'. At first glance this seemed insufficient, however the sweatshop free certifications they have (WRAP or SGS) then have further policies that are required for the certification. They focus on the UN sustainable targets and proper waste disposal. Tunnel Vision also don't throw out any incorrectly made clothes and always repurpose them, and are very transparent in providing information, so overall they seem to be doing better than most fashion companies. Now onto the meaty stuff. They sell shirts with slogans written across them, saying things like 'Hug a tree before it's too late'. Phrases like these are clearly linked to environmental movements and the climate crisis. It's not a stretch to then say that they are indirectly profiting from this crisis, and the ethics of this has always confused me.
Grey Area 1: Making money from suffering.
I first want to get out the way the fact that I'm not trying to 'cancel' anything or anyone. This is more of a discussion about the ethics surrounding this particular way of making money.
On one hand, linking a profitable endeavour to any kind of political, social or environmental movement means that you are benefitting off the oppression of a minority group, or the destruction of the planet. Using the example of environmental justice, creating any new product 'in support' of environmental justice is inherently a little hypocritical. Creating new products, when (in the western world) we already overconsume, will always be detrimental to the environment. Making and dying fabrics, stitching them together and transporting the final product all creates an environmental footprint and at the very least a carbon footprint. Therefore, the business is profiting from the issues that they, in part, cause.
On the other hand, it's nowhere near as shady as that. Firstly, climate change is not single-handedly caused by a small clothing business from LA. Giving them, or any other small, environmentally conscious business, the blame for this issue is taking the spotlight away from the real causes of the issue (listed in this report https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/002/327/original/Carbon-Majors-Report-2017.pdf ). Blaming consumers and small businesses is incredibly dangerous as it allows the worst of the worst to fly under the radar, so overly policing small businesses based on what I detailed above is unnecessary. Clothing is a way of expressing yourself, and if you feel passionately about saving the environment, a shirt bearing the slogan 'Hug a tree before it's too late' is an easy way of getting that across to people. In the case of Tunnel Vision, they have a relatively strong environmental policy, so it's not hypocritical of them to make shirts like this. A slogan like that also evokes an emotional reaction in anyone reading it, and may inspire them to think about their choices. I could go on about the kind of butterfly effect this could create, but I think you get the gist. People want to wear what they want, and restricting that based on minor moral dilemmas is quite extreme. I think wearing an ethically manufactured design expressing support for some kind of social change will normally have a net-positive, or at the least, net-neutral effect. And that's not even taking into account the fact that people need to wear clothes, so wearing ones that could inspire change in others seems like a good option.
Grey Area 2: Charity Partnerships
Something commonly seen in marketing is giving a percentage of profits- sometimes only from a certain product- to a charity. This obviously seems like a nice thing to do, but doing this is profiting from the good will of other people, and again, profiting from a serious issue. Is the net-positive impact good enough? Is there even a net-positive impact? Is this just an easy way for the business to seem like they actually care? Are they using this as a replacement for making real change, and trying to remove responsibility? Aside from the fact that there will always be case-by-case differences, it really boils down to a more philosophical argument of intention vs. impact.
I will avoid rehashing the same arguments, so keep in mind my point about not blaming consumers and small businesses in particular.
The first thing that bothers me about this is the fact that often the charity affiliated products are more expensive than the other products. This means that the money going towards the charity is no skin off the company's teeth, and does as much good as the consumer giving directly to the charity- except the company gets credit. The major flaw in this criticism is the fact that many people wouldn't think to donate unless directly given an easy way of doing so, such as through buying something for themselves first.
The second thing that bothers me is the fact that companies are profiting from other peoples' good will. Unless 100% of the proceeds go to charity, they are exploiting the cause. This is where intention vs. impact comes in. The majority of the time, companies don't really care about the charities, but it is good marketing to look like you do. They have selfish intentions, but generous impacts.
Intention Vs. Impact:
When I searched up 'does intention matter', the majority of articles that first popped up were in support of the fact that it doesn't. Your actions are what have a tangible impact on others, so intentions only really tell us about your character. Thanks to Reddit, I found this analogy to explain the other side of the story (originally from an article by James Rachel- 'active and passive euthanasia')
'Let's say there is a man who wishes to kill a child, or anyone for that matter. The man sneaks into the house of the child with a gun and finds the child taking a bath. As the child stands up to get out of the bathtub the man prepares to shoot the child. However, before he can pull the trigger the child slips, hits their head on the side of the tub, and lands face down in the water, unable to move. The would-be murderer chooses to do nothing and leaves the child to die.'
Firstly, his intention tells us that he is clearly not a good person, that goes without saying. The intention vs impact argument comes in because through choosing not to act, he had the impact of letting the child die. His intention to kill the child dictated how he acted (or didn't act), and as his impact technically didn't exist (the same outcome would have happened regardless of his presence), it was his intention that was more important in this case, as his intention is what makes this an issue.
Another thing this 'intention vs. impact' debate made me think of was my own intentions. In writing this essay, I am using the profitable exploitation of minority groups (primarily the LGBTQ+ community) to expand my online image. Am I therefore benefitting from exploitation? If this essay gets reads, then yes. Will my impact even be positive? If it encourages people to consume more mindfully, then yes. Even if I am not in support of Rainbow Capitalism, I am still benefitting from it's existence by saying I don't want it to exist. What I'm trying to say is it's a moral nightmare. Everything has endless ethical consequences, and to talk in circles about it seems pointless.
That being said, I will continue to talk in circles.
Partnering with a charity is nowhere near the same as intending to murder a child, and obviously this works in the other direction (neutral/selfish intention, positive impact) but the point stands. Their intention should mean something to the consumer, and you should avoid being guilt tripped into buying something you may not need just because it's charity affiliated. However, the beneficiaries of the charity money are unlikely to care about the intentions of the people who gave the money, and they should be at the centre of the discussion. This is what I'm talking about when I say net-positive. If mistreated people are benefitting, it's pointless and immoral for me to whine about companies' intentions.
Again, the point here is not to 'cancel' charity partnerships- quite often charity partnerships have a net-positive impact- but instead to encourage mindful consumption and understand the marketing tactics behind things like this. It all comes down to the need to be more thoughtful about purchases, because too often we mindlessly overconsume. Don't buy something because you think it makes you a good person. If you don't actually like the product, you're better off directly donating to the charity.
Back to Pride Month
The point of this essay was to explore marketing tactics that are linked to political, social and environmental movements, and the ethics surrounding them. As I've mentioned, pride month is prime time for this. More often than not, companies do this with almost entirely selfish intentions, which is to be expected because their primary aim is to make money. It's up to the consumer to assess how much you think intention matters, and what types of companies you want to support. I know this is a bit late as pride month is at it's end, but I've made a quick checklist to help with this.
- Have they been designed by people in the minority group they are supporting (eg. during pride month is there an LGBTQ+ designer)?
- Do you actually like the product being sold, or do you just want to seem like a good person?
- Are company policies in support of the cause year-round?
- Is there a better company to buy from?
I have almost completely abandoned the topic of rainbow capitalism in this essay, so I'm sorry if that was what you were expecting. In our current economic system the commodification of just about everything is inevitable, but it doesn't mean we should just sit by passively. In general, I think pride merchandise (and other political/social/environmental merchandise) without tangible change attached should be avoided. It's when some change is attached it becomes the grey area. Overall we should assess on a case-by-case basis as consumers, but we shouldn't bear too much of the burden for this. Major societal change is needed in terms of all businesses becoming more ethical. As 'The Good Place' (a very good TV show) illustrates, the world is a moral nightmare, so maybe thinking about it this much is futile.
I just want to end by saying there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but some is more ethical than others.
About the Creator
a teenager's take on social media, activism, trends and pretty much anything that crosses my mind.
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