The meme-ified phrase “there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism” has been circulating the internet for a while.
I’ve come across it more than once on social media, sometimes it is even plastered across an image of Sonic the Hedgehog for reasons that I don’t understand. My initial impulse is to reject the idea; as a business owner and entrepreneur, it’s something that’s not only uncomfortable to sit with, but also difficult to consider. What exactly is “ethical consumption,” and why would it be impossible in a capitalist world?
[Rainbow washing] describes when companies gleefully slap rainbow-colored schemes on their logos and/or products each June.
It has been on my mind recently - I’m very lucky to work with informed, young people who genuinely care about social issues and keep their fingers far closer to the figurative pulse of things than I do. And it comes up like clockwork every June.
Over the years, I’ve heard and learned about some of the larger discourse (primarily from within the LGBTQ+ community) regarding “rainbow washing” (yes, pun colorfully intended). And inevitably, with each Pride Month comes another wave of clueless corporate rainbow washing (with increasingly damaging effects for brands).
Capitalizing on ethics without actually having ethics
If you, like me, have been previously unaware of this term, it describes when companies gleefully slap rainbow-colored schemes on their logos and/or products each June, naturally followed by making a very big, very self-congratulatory (and goodwill-seeking) public show of sharing pro-LGBTQ+ social media posts, all while doing very little to meaningfully support the LGBTQ+ community.
In fact, many of these same companies have been called out for doing just this while simultaneously donating to politicians and organizations pushing legislation that actively harms the LGBTQ+ community. In other words, it comes down to yet another example of companies using value-based branding to market themselves - and in this case, to also make money off of a marginalized community - while betraying those values and harming that very same community with their actions.
Many of these same companies have been called out for doing just this while simultaneously donating to politicians and organizations pushing legislation that actively harms the LGBTQ+ community.
Essentially, these companies are attempting to capitalize on ethics without actually having any ethics, which is about as hollow as it sounds. And it’s not a good look.
This is also where the quandary over “there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism” begins. The thinking goes, no matter where you spend your money, every business has been tainted by either its own actions or by other unethical actors in the supply chain.
These actions can include sweatshops, blood diamonds, prison labor, or - as in the case of “rainbow washing” - providing extensive financial donations to politicians openly committed to the effective removal of LGBTQ+ people from everyday life. It’s not only incredibly wrong and dishonest, it’s also a surefire way to step right into a PR disaster.
There is a high cost when brand actions don’t align with brand values
Companies need to be extremely aware of the risk they’re taking with both their brands and their credibility. One of the most critical rules of branding is that however you choose to market yourself, especially when leveraging value-based branding, your actions must be in alignment. To do otherwise appears inconsistent, muddled, dishonest, and untrustworthy, and frequently leads to viral public call-outs and PR crises.
Additionally, when it comes to rainbow washing, brands will have to consider the potential cost of losing access to a global trillion-dollar market colloquially referred to as “pink money.” And those considerations are on top of the moral questions - you know, how you’ll sleep at night - which, I know, is just a rhetorical convenience where real people’s lives are involved, and which cannot be separated from those same moral questions.
Younger generations are proving to be hyperconscious about the ethics of the brands they support.
Moreover, younger generations are proving to be hyperconscious about the ethics of the brands they support (this is why value-based branding is so valuable). For example, 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.
Companies attempting to have it both ways - by exploiting Pride imagery and language to gain easy public goodwill while simultaneously financially backing politicians who are working to further marginalize the very same community - 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. The same can be said about AT&T, Comcast, and Walmart. And General Motors. And UPS. And Home Depot (the list goes on).
Brands need to consider the message communicated by their donations
To be clear, I’m not saying (and as far as I know, no one else is either) that these businesses are necessarily acting out of bigotry and malice. Corporations are essentially machines that were designed to make as much money as quickly as possible. Everything is in service of the cash register. Corporations don’t really have principles beyond whether any given action will generate the most possible value for shareholders. This is why they donate to politicians who seek to lower corporate taxes even further (even when those same politicians also seek to undermine marginalized communities' human rights). So it’s not exactly malice; it’s simply brute indifference to the suffering of others in pursuit of wealth, conveniently mediated by a couple of degrees of removal.
When I buy some bread, it doesn’t amount to an endorsement of the person who made it, even though my purchase is indirectly financially supporting those actions.
Now, the “there is no ethical consumption” claim does go both ways: many of these businesses justify their financial donations by claiming that they don’t necessarily endorse all of the stances of the political candidates they support. Which, fair enough, I suppose. There is some space to be drawn between a specific individual or organization and those they do business with.
When I buy some bread, it doesn’t amount to an endorsement of the person who made it, even though my purchase is indirectly financially supporting those actions (and potentially allowing them to continue). That’s exactly what “no ethical consumption” means. That said, there’s an obvious difference between buying a loaf of bread even when the baker happens to be a jerk and backing lawmakers despite the material harm they continue to inflict as a matter of public policy.
Values actually do matter
Remember, there are no secrets anymore (at least not where the Twitterati are concerned), and conscientious young people have no problem dropping companies who have been “cancelled” because of unethical actions. Know that your donations will be made public, your values will be scrutinized, and your villainous bona fides reified in dollars and cents regardless of the why.
If your company supports a politician because you like his stance on tech policy, but he also happens to be supporting bigoted anti-transgender legislation, know that his tech policy doesn’t erase the very real consequences of such legislation’s passage. Nor does it erase the memories of those who may have once supported you before the disclosure and now, in good conscience, cannot. If your actions do not align with your stated values, your customers will rightfully feel betrayed, lied to, and manipulated, damaging the very brand you’ve worked so hard to build.
If your company supports a politician because you like his stance on tech policy, but he also happens to be supporting bigoted anti-transgender legislation, know that his tech policy doesn’t erase the very real consequences of such legislation’s passage.
Can you see how nuclear the risk of such complacency is? Values, integrity, transparency, authenticity, honesty - these things actually do matter. So 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 (as quickly as possible). There’s actually quite a lot of good publicity to be gained from that.
A public statement of stopping donations, financial support, or doing business of any kind with anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and organizations - followed by clear, decisive action to that effect - will boost your standing, improve public perception, and encourage conscientious buyers who are all too aware that “there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism” to mentally file you away as a Good Company™, and it may even earn you a new customer for life.
To put it simply: stop saying one thing while doing another. No one likes a hypocrite, and in 2021 and beyond, it spells death for brands.