Rainbow Washing is the process of using rainbow motifs to claim allyship with the LGBTQIA+ community in the place of any tangible action, and is common among individuals, governments and corporations. But can we use the term to describe another form of questionable behaviour?
Can we use it to describe the process by which LGBTQIA+ issues are promoted to distract people from unethical behaviour of organisations in other spheres?
AGL is the most famous perpetrator of this form of Rainbow Washing.
The Australian energy company was recently awarded Gold Employer status for LGBTQ+ inclusion at the AWEI Awards, while simultaneously earning the title of Australia’s biggest domestic contributor to climate change by Greenpeace. Greenpeace argues that AGL emitted 42.2 million tonnes of carbon emissions in 2019-2020. Greenpeace data confirms that the energy company creates,
“…24.6% of electricity sector emissions and 8% of Australia’s total emissions, which primarily comes from the coal burned at the energy giant’s three coal-burning power stations: Liddell, Bayswater, and Loy Yang A. AGL’s own data confirms that 85% of energy generated by the gentailer comes from burning coal.”
At the same time, AGL boasts publicly that:
“This is the third year we have been awarded Gold Employer status, and the fifth year that we have participated in the AWEI. Our employee-driven LGBTQ+ network, AGL Shine, was created in 2014. The network focuses on providing a safe and inclusive environment for all our employees – while also advocating internally and externally for gender inclusion beyond the heteronormative binary.”
Ironically, organisations such as AGL could be accused of harnessing political correctness to protect their public image. Ironic, because the defenders of fossil fuels are often the loudest critics of ‘political correctness’. Essentially, organisations like AGL promote their diversity and inclusion credentials to stifle criticism of their environmental destruction by saying,
‘You can’t criticise us because then you’re criticising LGBT+ people, and that’s not politically correct’.
Consequently, LGBT+ people are being used and exploited in order to allow AGL to continue polluting.
To what extent did Australian former member of parliament Tim Wilson benefit from this definition of Rainbow Washing?
Wilson is gay and was widely praised for his role in the successful campaign to approve same-sex marriage in Australia, but to what extent did he exploit his sexuality to stay in power?
Wilson was involved in various controversies. There was no mainstream media investigation into strong allegations that Wilson was involved in immoral activities in the parliamentary prayer room with other prominent LNP politicians. The opposition Labor Party also called for his sacking due to alleged conflicts of interest and a “massive breach” of parliamentary conventions surrounding the use of a taxpayer-funded inquiry to spearhead partisan campaigning against Labor’s policy on franking credits. Then, of course, was yet another controversy when he claimed $37,494 from taxpayers in travel allowance after leaving Melbourne’s brutal COVID-19 lockdown for 95 nights during 2021.
Did Rainbow Washing keeping Wilson in power, or did former Prime Minister Scott Morrison?
The Easy Way Out
Promoting diversity and inclusion is easier than taking real action on other issues. Creating a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people is encouraging, but let’s not beat around the bush – how hard is it to be inclusive in 2022?
Encouraging diversity essentially means treating everyone equally. Even if AGL does genuinely support LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace, what exactly does this entail?
It involves affirming the Darlington Statement which articulates the human rights demands of people with intersex variations. A statement written by someone else.
Does it involve AGL, or other organisations, paying a diversity trainer or consultant to conduct training sessions on diversity with employees, or hosting social days to celebrate diversity?
Does it involve allowing all staff to choose their own pronouns and updating HR documents, or posting the rainbow motif on all social media platforms?
It might even include sponsoring a float in Mardi Gras or other LGBT+ events. It might involve targeted employment or other active steps. They might even make a difference to the lives of employees. But how much profit does AGL make in a year, and what percentage of that profit is spent on LGBT+ inclusion?
Either way, winning an award for diversity inclusion does not change the fact that AGL is still Australia’s biggest polluter.
Joining AGL are multinational corporations such as Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle. Coca Cola was ranked the world’s No.1 plastic polluter by Break Free From Plastic in 2020, ahead of rival PepsiCo, in second, and Nestle in third. The BFFP audit found that Coca Cola’s beverage bottles were the most frequently found discarded on beaches, rivers, parks and other litter sites in 51 of 55 nations surveyed. Last year it was the most frequently littered bottle in 37 countries, out of 51 surveyed. It was found to be worse than PepsiCo and Nestle combined: Coca-Cola branding was found on 13,834 pieces of plastic, with PepsiCo branding on 5,155 and Nestlé branding on 8,633, according to the audit.
At the same time, all three corporations boast of their inclusion and diversity policies.
Coca Cola claims that:
Diversity, equity and inclusion are at the heart of our values and our growth strategy and play an important part in our company’s success.
PepsiCo, meanwhile, boasts on its website…
“…in 2015 PepsiCo demonstrated its commitment to LGBT+ consumers through its rainbow-colored Doritos.”
That’s right. It’s primary claim to LGBT+ inclusion and ethical business practices is rainbow coloured Doritos. This is a perfect example of Rainbow Washing. A perfect example of superficial change and marketing spin designed to protect the corporation from its plastic waste. Don’t forget, the packaging adorned with rainbows is soft plastic.
PepsiCo does go on to say that each rollout of the rainbow Dorritos raised funds for “…organizations including the It Gets Better Project, Fundación en Movimiento, Casa 1 and Cuenta Conmigo, Diversidad Sexual Incluyente A.C.”
Further to this, PepsiCo has also supported the LGBT+ community through social media campaigns to engage consumers and sponsorships of local pride parades around the world.
What were we saying about rainbow motifs and sponsorship?
Another word for ‘social media campaigns’ is ‘slacktivism’.
Furthermore, the funds donated to those causes were only available if consumers bought the product. Thus, a large percentage of the funds came from the public, not solely from PepsiCo.
Let’s also remember that Dorritos are very unhealthy and this initiative was implemented in North America and Mexico (which is technically in North America) and these two countries have some of the world’s highest rates of obesity, especially among children. The rainbow is thus also distracting the public from the company’s contribution to a public health crisis.
PepsiCo also reminds visitors to its website that:
In March 2019, the Human Rights Campaign awarded PepsiCo a perfect score for our LGBT+ workplace initiatives and designated us the Best Place to Work for LGBTQ equality. In the same year, PepsiCo was one of the world’s worst plastic polluters. A perfect example of Rainbow Washing.
Nestle came in third for plastic pollution and carries an extensive list of diversity achievements on its website. Among these boasts are
Support of the UN’s LGBTI Standard of Conduct for Business.
Running workshops and e-learning for employees. See above.
Equal parental support benefits to same-sex and different-sex couples.
Partnering with LGBT+ advocacy groups throughout the world.
Offering unlimited financial support for medical costs to employees undergoing gender transition. Also in Brazil, we offer legal and administrative support to transgender employees who are in the process of recertifying their name and gender.
One might ask, how can a company afford to do all of this for its LGBT+ employees?
By covering the world in plastic waste.
Again, this is all encouraging, but Nestle ignores the fact that its vast plastic pollution destroys the natural environment on which everyone relies, regardless of their gender or sexuality. Praising efforts to promote diversity and inclusion while destroying the planet on which those people live is another perfect example of Rainbow Washing.
Image: Mateus Campos Felipe