Using LGBTQ+ for Profit in the Food Industry

Words by Amy Leadbitter, image by Taylor Heery (via Unsplash).

We’ve all seen an uptake in brands ‘promoting’ or ‘raising awareness’ for LGBTQ+ issues, especially around Pride month; from The Co-Op’s gender-neutral gingerbread person, to M&S’s LGBT sandwich. Do these companies actually care about LGBTQ+ issues, or is this ‘rainbow washing’?

‘Rainbow-washing’, similar to ‘woke-washing’, is a way for companies to outwardly show ‘support’ for LGBTQ+ people, whilst not actually putting money or work into tangible results. It’s also known as ‘slacktivism’, allowing brands and consumers to feel as if they are participating in a social or political cause with minimal effort put in. There is reason for this, however. A survey by Harris Interactive found roughly 66% of LGBT adults would be likely to remain loyal to a brand they believed to be supportive of the LGBT community even when less-supportive competitors offered lower prices. In short, there’s now profit to be made as LGBTQ+ issues have become more popular and mainstream.

Some companies genuinely seem to support the LGBTQ+ community, and not only by using rainbow packaging in June. Ben and Jerry’s, maintaining a high score on the HRC’s corporate equality index, have been supporters of the LGBTQ+ community for decades, offering benefits, protections, and promotions for queer employees as far back as 1989. The snack bar company Kind created a Pride nut bar with all proceeds from its sale going to an LGBTQ+ charity. Skittles donates $1 from every “Pride Pack”, the black and white Skittles, to GLAAD for up to $100,000. You’ll also be pleased to hear that Smirnoff Vodka has been working for the LGBTQ+ community for decades, sponsoring events around World Pride in NYC in 2017, and launching its ‘Love Wins’ bottles pledging $1 per bottle to HRC, totalling nearly $1.5 million by 2021. Asda and The Co-Op are both listed in Stonewall’s list of top 100 LGBT-inclusive employers. Unfortunately, they are the only retailers to make the list. And therein lies the problem.

Many mention companies such as M&S, with their LGBT sandwich. Mixed opinions were had, and for good reason. It took some time for M&S to announce they were going to donate money towards LGBTQ+ causes after this new promotion, and when they did, they announced it to be £10,000. Whilst this seems a sizeable amount, when you take in the fact this is a multi-billion pound company that is profiting off LGBTQ+ support, you’d want them to give more back, and not only when socially pressured to. Not only this, but it has not extended this sandwich packaging to its newly opened stores in Saudi Arabia, where it is punishable by death to be gay. This extends to many companies and brands, who put on a face of inclusiveness with branded rainbows to take the money of LGBTQ+ people, but behind the scenes give nothing back, or worse support countries, industries, or politicians who actively harm LGBTQ+ individuals.

Is it too gimmicky? Too commercialised? Going back to The Co-Op as an example, they have proven to be good employers and supporters of the cause, but still received backlash from LGBTQ+ people over their ‘gender-neutral’ gingerbread person. Whilst many act in good faith, people are becoming irritated by the seemingly profit-orientated support. We did not ask for a gender-neutral gingerbread person. Perhaps, if a company feels so strongly about discrimination over gender identity, they could instead divert funds and effort towards countering blatantly transphobic bathroom policies pushed by those in government. Opinion is split, but what many of us want is genuine, meaningful support- not publicity gimmicks or new products.

The other side is representation and normalisation. A study from GLAAD showed people exposed to LGBTQ-inclusive media were 80% more likely to be more supportive of equal rights than people who had not. Companies and brands do have the platform to normalise on a scale individuals cannot. Showing that the LGBTQ+ community is a popular demographic to support, even if only for profit reasons, has the potential to change real attitudes. If a gay child can see the brands they use believe they are normal and worth celebrating, does it make it all worth it?

Whilst no companies are perfect, we must be aware which are worth our money. Do they donate set amounts to LGBTQ+ charities, or is their donation dependent on a small portion of Pride-edition product sales? Do they donate all year round, or only in Pride month? Are they gaining profits or giving donations to countries or groups who are anti-LGBT? Do they have a good employability rating on the HRC index for LGBTQ+ employees? In 2021, supporting the LGBTQ+ community is not cutting-edge activism. It is not revolutionary. Companies can and should do better – and we should be wary of those who want our money but do nothing to return the favour.

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