pride flag blowing in wind

Rainbow Capitalism: A Double-Edged Sword in the Business Arena

Rainbow capitalism doesn't have to be a double-edged sword; it can be a powerful tool for change if wielded correctly. By shifting from superficial gestures to sustained, meaningful action, we can ensure that the colors of the rainbow truly represent the values they stand for: life, healing, sunlight, nature, serenity and spirit.

Every June for Pride Month, pride flags unfurl and rainbow-colored merchandise floods the shelves. But how do we know if companies genuinely care about LGBTQ+ issues, and how much is this just a calculated maneuver to earn more profit off performative representation?  

This phenomenon of selling and profiting from Pride merchandise, known as rainbow capitalism, is the multifaceted intersection of market capitalism and LGBTQ+ representation. It’s characterized by companies commercializing and commodifying LGBTQ+ identities, symbols and culture. This is particularly noticeable during Pride Month, as businesses use LGBTQ+-centric messaging, branding or products to curry favor or garner financial support from the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. 

“Rainbow capitalism” and “pinkwashing” are often used interchangeably. While sharing similarities, they have different implications. Rainbow capitalism encapsulates the increasing trend of commodifying LGBTQ+ identities, symbols, and culture for corporate gain, particularly during Pride Month. It involves corporations employing LGBTQ+-friendly marketing strategies to appeal to this community and its allies.  

Pinkwashing is a term that originated in the 1990s, describing companies that aligned themselves with breast cancer research while paradoxically contributing to the disease. Today, it relates more to corporations or governments grandiosely displaying support for the LGBTQ+ community as a veneer to mask harmful or discriminatory actions. While both terms involve the exploitation of LGBTQ+ identities, pinkwashing additionally carries an insinuation of deception and hypocrisy. 

Why does this matter

While rainbow capitalism does lead to increased visibility for the LGBTQ+ community, queer activists and members of the community have criticized this often-performative action—it’s a surface-level engagement with LGBTQ+ issues. Critique largely focuses on how company action in Pride Month often lacks substantial backing. As an example, those same companies may be lacking in internal policies that support LGBTQ+ employees or significant contributions to LGBTQ+ causes.  

As a founder, if your company targets LGBTQ+ consumers, knowing about rainbow capitalism and taking steps to ensure internal equity along with external celebration is essential.  

Women founders, even if straight and cisgender, should be mindful of the effects of rainbow capitalism. Consider how it feels to see exploitative, identity-based branding. From stores up-charging pink razors (the same as men’s in everything but color) to “diverse” beauty aisles failing to stock dark foundations, many targeting women consumers do a horrible job of understanding what women want while claiming to be progressive.  Why would we want to do that to someone else? 

Why entrepreneurs should know about rainbow capitalism 

Understanding rainbow capitalism is crucial for women founders and entrepreneurs for several reasons: 


The concept of intersectionality acknowledges that individuals often navigate multiple, overlapping forms of discrimination and privilege. For women who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, understanding rainbow capitalism becomes a personal matter deeply rooted in intersectionality. As women, as part of the LGBTQ+ community and in the context of their socio-economic class within a capitalist society, these identities intertwine and interact in intricate ways. The machinations of rainbow capitalism can deeply influence these individuals, extending beyond gender and sexual orientation to significantly impact their socio-economic status.

For instance, it could reinforce harmful stereotypes, create tokenistic representation or skew the marketplace towards those who can afford to ‘buy into’ LGBTQ+ supportive products or services. It could also potentially exploit marginalized groups within the LGBTQ+ community that do not have the same access to capital. As a result, entrepreneurs must strive for a more nuanced, inclusive approach that considers these intersections and effects of rainbow capitalism. Remember that the goal of equity and representation is to elevate all community members, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation or socio-economic status. 

Consumer engagement and maintaining a satisfied customer base

Entrepreneurs need to understand their market, including the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. Recognizing the implications of rainbow capitalism enables them to engage these consumers with authenticity and respect. For example, American Eagle, through campaigns like the ‘Love is Love’ initiative, has actively and authentically engaged with the LGBTQ+ community and its allies, fostering a positive brand image and enhancing customer base and brand loyalty. However, consumer decisions and brand trust are deeply influenced by perceived authenticity and consistency in a company’s values, particularly regarding Pride and LGBTQ+ inclusion. Genuine, consistent support for the LGBTQ+ community, aligned with a brand’s values, can boost trust. Conversely, opportunistic tactics or inconsistent actions, especially those exploiting LGBTQ+ identities, can erode trust. Furthermore, discrepancies between a company’s public support for LGBTQ+ inclusion and its internal policies can significantly damage brand perception, as can lackluster responses to related controversies.

Businesses that contribute meaningfully to the LGBTQ+ community are often perceived as more authentic, thus enhancing positive feelings towards a brand. Those that fail to make a tangible impact risk being seen as less trustworthy. 

Ethical business practices

Many modern consumers expect businesses to take clear stances on social issues. This includes LGBTQ+ rights. Women entrepreneurs who understand the criticisms of rainbow capitalism can avoid the pitfalls of performative allyship and instead genuinely support the community. 

Workplace diversity and inclusion

As leaders, women founders have the opportunity to build diverse and inclusive workplaces. Understanding the nuances of rainbow capitalism can be a guide to creating a business that truly represents and uplifts marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, rather than exploiting them for profit. Tech giant Google has made strides in this area by implementing a broad range of policies that actively support their LGBTQ+ employees. These include offering transgender-inclusive healthcare coverage and employee resource groups such as Gayglers. By doing so, Google promotes a more inclusive work environment, which not only attracts a diverse talent pool but also fosters creativity and collaboration, leading to better business performance and innovation. 


Lastly, understanding the complexities of rainbow capitalism might spark innovative ideas. It may inspire entrepreneurs to find new ways of marrying profit with advocacy, creating business models that uplift LGBTQ+ communities while also contributing to the business’s success. A great example of this is the skincare brand, Noto Botanics, founded by Gloria Noto. It markets itself as a “gender-fluid” brand, catering to all genders rather than segregating its products for men and women. This innovative approach not only gives them a unique position in the marketplace, but it also makes a statement about inclusivity.  

How to ethically engage with the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month and beyond 

Ethical engagement goes beyond simply avoiding performative activism. It involves a year-round commitment to LGBTQ+ rights and representation. 

Practically, this might involve implementing LGBTQ+-friendly policies in the workplace, from inclusive hiring practices to supportive HR policies. It could also mean partnering with, investing in or donating to causes or businesses in the community.  

Authentic representation and inclusivity are at the heart of this engagement. This is not just about using rainbow-themed marketing materials during Pride Month. It’s about ensuring that LGBTQ+ voices are represented in decision-making processes, leadership roles and marketing campaigns throughout the year. 

Avoiding the performative aspects of rainbow capitalism requires a careful evaluation of your actions. Before launching an LGBTQ+-themed product or campaign, consider whether it aligns with your company’s internal practices and policies. It’s a worthwhile endeavor to actively seek counsel from the LGBTQ+ community to validate that your initiatives are considerate and supportive, steering clear from being exploitative. Abundant resources are out there for those who wish to delve deeper and contribute more actively. Notable organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and Out & Equal provide invaluable guides for businesses aiming to back the LGBTQ+ community. Engaging with local LGBTQ+ organizations can pave the way for impactful partnerships and initiatives. Remember, embracing the LGBTQ+ community should not be limited to a once-a-year event. This should be an ongoing commitment echoed throughout all facets of your business operations. 

Navigating your interactions with rainbow capitalism 

As we approach the end of Pride Month, think about how you can continue to be mindful of rainbow capitalism and your interactions with it. Here are some key questions women founders can ask themselves to evaluate their participation in rainbow capitalism, both as business leaders and as consumers:

As business leaders

  • Consistency: Does my company’s outward display of support for the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month align with our internal policies and practices throughout the year? 
  • Representation: Are LGBTQ+ voices represented in our decision-making processes, marketing campaigns, and leadership roles? How diverse is our workforce? 
  • Engagement: How does my company interact with and support the LGBTQ+ community beyond Pride Month? Do we have partnerships with LGBTQ+ organizations, or do we contribute to LGBTQ+ causes in meaningful ways? 
  • Authenticity: Is my business’s LGBTQ+ inclusive messaging genuine and respectful, or could it be perceived as exploitative or tokenistic? 
  • Impact: How does my company’s engagement with rainbow capitalism impact our reputation, consumer trust, and ultimately, our bottom line? 

As consumers

  • Transparency: Does the company I’m supporting openly share its policies and practices regarding LGBTQ+ rights and inclusivity? 
  • Year-round commitment: Does the company show its support for the LGBTQ+ community beyond Pride Month, or is its engagement limited to this period? 
  • Accountability: If the company has previously engaged in practices that could be categorized as performative rainbow capitalism, have they taken steps to address this and improve? 
  • Real impact: Does the company back up its LGBTQ+ supportive messaging with tangible actions, such as donations to LGBTQ+ causes, or support for LGBTQ+ employees? 
  • Values alignment: Does this company’s approach to rainbow capitalism align with my personal values and beliefs? Am I comfortable supporting them with my purchasing power? 

From tokenism to transformation 

As Pride Month comes to a close and the bright colors of pride flags and products begin to fade from store shelves and social media feeds, the question remains: how can we ensure that inclusivity and equality are prioritized in the business world throughout the year? Women founders and entrepreneurs have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to lead the way in creating a new kind of rainbow capitalism: one that values people over profits, representation over tokenism and authentic allyship over performative activism. Women already take the role of forging the way in business for equity and progress. We can and should recognize that equity is only effective if it brings us all forward. Tackling the issues of performative activism and exploitative business practices is vital if we are to transform the business landscape. 

The key to this lies in constant introspection and active listening. By questioning our motivations, reflecting on our actions and seeking feedback from the LGBTQ+ community, we can ensure that our businesses align with the spirit of Pride: respect, equality and love. 

The fight for LGBTQ+ rights isn’t confined to a single month, and neither should our support for this cause be. Rainbow capitalism doesn’t have to be a double-edged sword; it can be a powerful tool for change if wielded correctly. By shifting from superficial gestures to sustained, meaningful action, we can ensure that the colors of the rainbow truly represent the values they stand for: life, healing, sunlight, nature, serenity and spirit. 

About the author

River Terrell

River Terrell (they/she) is a passionate science communicator and human rights advocate, currently completing an honors Bachelor's degree in Biology at The University of Texas at Austin. Their minors in Science Communication and Business contribute to a unique perspective that intertwines the worlds of hard science and entrepreneurship. River's passion for LGBTQ+ rights and climate change are frequent themes in their work, creating a distinct narrative that underscores the necessity for equity and sustainability in all aspects of life. With pieces featured in a campus magazine and their science communication blog and Instagram, River strives to inform and inspire a diverse audience. Off the page, River is an unabashed queer science nerd who finds joy in their Texan home, quality time with their beloved cat Jamie, and the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of society and planet.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Check for errors 160x600 1