Corporate pinkwashing (also known as pink capitalism) is a phenomenon that has engulfed India recently, particularly after the reading down of Section 377 in 2018. It is a behaviour displayed by companies and corporates who present themselves as queer-friendly and used as a PR tool to ‘wash’ away any negative publicity and generate positive publicity to increase sales or brand awareness. Pinkwashing is primarily a tool for corporates and businesses to cash in on and capitalise on the queer community, particularly during LGBTQ+ periods such as pride month, when queer visibility is at its highest.
Corporate pinkwashing has been prevalent in various countries in the West for a while now. As a prominent example, Pride in London in the past has come under criticism for becoming increasingly bureaucratic and regimented, with only organisations who can pay securing a place to march. Marginalised community groups with lower funds are often unable to march along and stuck on the sidelines, whilst larger corporations can enjoy the extra visibility marching along the roads blaring their support and pride. Pride month has even become a commercialised, branded holiday of sorts, akin to ‘Black Friday’, where businesses capitalise a moment or holiday to drum up sales and interest. In the case of pride and LGBTQ+ rights, businesses are more than happy to create rainbow t-shirts and rainbow laces, amongst numerous other items, but how much of the profits (if any) go back into the queer community? There have been (and will continue to be), a whole host of brands that have emblazoned rainbows onto specific items to sell, with varying results. At the very least, some brands give back 100% of their profits to community organisations or national queer organisations, while some give back an ‘undisclosed amount’, or even worse, are not even associated with a non-profit in the first place. The ‘undisclosed amount’ aspect of donations shows a clear lack of transparency, making it hard to analyse how effective or charitable it could be to buy that rainbow t-shirt that would look great for your next pride march. Further, are these clothes and items being made in countries where queer people have to hide their identities, or where the country retains and reinforces anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and practices? Are the employees working in safe environments, and are they being exploited by capitalism in different ways?
Corporate pinkwashing and pink capitalism really came to the forefront in India post the reading down of Section 377. Brands had their social media tweets loaded and rainbow graphics prepared, ready to roll them out on the same day to appear supportive of the LGBTQ+ movement and equality. Brands from Zomato, Uber, Indigo and a whole host of other businesses showed positive support for the decision, but what else are they doing for the LGBTQ+ community? Although it could be argued that visibility alone is already doing quite a bit to raise awareness, how is the community benefitting if attitudes remain the same and the queer community are still discriminated against in many facets of society? And when brands such as Zomato are showing their support on their social media pages, are they doing enough to raise awareness of the issues to the whole cross-section of Indian society? IndiGo is a prime example of a business in India, which could be doing so much more. While providing a useful page on how to be a good ally to queer persons, they mention that the ‘use of language is very important’, but still have limitations in their booking forms. As an example, they could have easily provided the option ‘Mx’ (a gender neutral alternative to Mr/Mrs/Miss) and led the way in inclusivity in a small but meaningful way.
If corporates are misguided in their attempts of pinkwashing, what can they actually do to ethically advocate for the queer community and show they care? A huge part of their advocacy work can start with denouncing partnerships with organisations or individuals. Multinational Corporations (MNCs) based in India have a large economic influence, and thus have less risk when speaking out or leading the way in positive practices. Corporates need to show up for the queer community and make real tangible changes. One great way of doing this is providing policies to support LGBTQ+ employees, particularly when India is lacking in many policies in place for its queer citizens. At Tech Mahindra, same-sex couples can avail 12 weeks of paid leave for adoption and three days of bereavement leave. It’s also not enough to say you are accepting of LGBTQ+ people if your workforce is lacking in queer and particularly transgender individuals, who are still largely discriminated against in Indian education and employment. Attending fairs such as the Pride Circle’s LGBTQ+ fair is a good opportunity to reach out to sections of the queer community, and providing paid training opportunities to marginalised members of the LGBTQ+ community could support those members who had to drop out of school due to continued bullying and harassment. Many employees are afraid to come out due to work environments being homophobic, biphobic and transphobic in nature. A few ways to help combat this toxic culture is to hold regular gender and LGBTQ+ sensitisation training sessions (and then even pay for local queer organisations to provide the training), or to create LGBTQ+ networks for queer persons and allies. Tata Steel created WINGS, an employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees, and having networks like these in the workplace can be extremely affirming.
Some corporates have taken important first steps to avoid corporate pinkwashing, and implement policies that will affirm and strengthen queer identities and voices. However, it is important for these MNCs and corporates to ensure they are providing opportunities and platforms for more marginalised sections of the queer community, in addition to catering to their current employees who may already be benefiting from a certain level of privilege e.g. having employment at an English speaking MNC. As the ‘pink economy’ grows, brands will find more ways to capitalise on the growing spending power of the queer economy, and it will only be a matter of time before more brands jump on board with their own stock of rainbow merchandise. Anyone fancy a queer sandwich?
The above article was written by Harshil Shah for One Future Collective. Harshil Shah is a volunteer at the Queer Rights Centre at One Future Collective. He is a graduate of Sociology from the University of Warwick and is interested in gender, queer rights and intersectionality. The views expressed are the author’s own.
The Queer Quill is a collaborative column by One Future Collective X SheThePeople on the theme of queer rights with a focus on law, modern culture and the intersections of art and history.