PINK WASHING OR CULTURAL SHIFT - The corporate race to stand for LGBTI equality

14 Jan 2020

Fabrice Houdart

Western companies find themselves under unprecedented pressure to bolster their reputation as “good citizens”. Millennials and Gen-Zs, increasingly divested from the democratic process, search instead for agency as employees, customers and shareholders. Lack of trust in institutions and capitalism has had real consequences for companies from increased calls for transparency and regulations to political instability. In the United States, this pressure to take a stance on social issues was visible in the past few years when Starbucks closed 8,000 locations to hold racial bias training, Uber’s CEO quit President Trump’s economic advisory council or Google dropped a $10 billion bid for a Pentagon contract. More recently, luxury  fitness  brands SoulCycle and  Equinox faced a chorus of calls for a boycott over news that Stephen Ross, the owner, had held a political fundraising not aligned with the political beliefs of its customers.

Similarly, Italian brand Gucci faced its first ever social media backlash after one of its sweaters was widely criticized for evoking blackface symbolism. Companies did not only act under duress from customers and employees to showcase their values. Nike launched an advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick and Runner Caster Semenya. Gillette had a similar viral ad targeting toxic masculinity. Ikea joined a coalition of companies committing to hire refugees in many parts of the World. Gilead provided approximately $400 million through various corporate giving programs not including free medication. This trend also affects B2B firms which increasingly share their values on their website, in advertising campaigns and in their annual reports. Among the 260 companies that expressed support for the United Nations Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct, a sizeable number of these companies are not consumer-facing such as Airbus or NASADAQ. Capitalism – which is meeting a renewed wave of criticism particularly from young people for only benefiting a few - might indeed be changing for the better. A recent study showed that 67% of Gen-Z consumers have stopped purchasing from a company that stood for something or behaved in a way that did not align with their values. A  2017 Harris Poll survey for Glassdoor found that 75% of Americans believe employers should take a public stand. Among the global issues on which companies take a stand such as racism, immigration, gender equality or sexual violence, global LGBTI equality appear to come out as a strong winner. This might be the combination of multiple effects.

First, the pressure comes from within. Unlike other social minorities, LGBTI people pop up everywhere: in the store, at the office, in the boardroom. They use their leverage to push for much-needed and urgent global change they care about. Secondly, in a fragmented civil society space, the bar to obtain the LGBTI stamp of approval remains relatively low with very little accountability mechanisms. In places where the “LGBTI dividend” is high, the issue is less and less divisive and controversial: more than twothirds of Americans say they support same-sex marriage. Finally, it remains the cheapest option to be a values-driven brand by opposition to costlier endeavours such as the environment, labor, taxation or other human rights matters. Being LGBTI-friendly often only require purchasing a table at an LGBTI award dinner, a happy hour for employees during Pride Month and a colourful float in selected Western parades. By opposition, moving a pipeline that blocks the reproductive route of  severely endangered whales can cost hundreds of millions.

Consequently, many human rights defenders are concerned corporations are only engaged in these efforts superficially. They also fear that ultimately it constitutes nothing more than Pink Washing and do not benefit LGBTI equality movements in a time of backlash. Indeed, for all the progress of the past decade, millions of LGBT people remain trapped in a climate of hostility, violence and stigma, and for some of them, life is getting harder rather than easier. In 70 countries people can still be arrested and imprisoned and in some cases even executed for being gay, and in 17 countries bans are in place to prohibit so called ‘gay propaganda’. One can easily notice that the world’s worst plastic polluters and the architects of the financial crisis of 2008 also happen to be the most vocal on the need for social change on LGBTI issues. Similarly, there are several examples of companies perceived as “LGBTI champion” at home, which were quick to de-solidarize themselves from LGBTI people in places where they are under attack. Yet, other activists share the view that the private sector will anyway use the “LGBTI-friendly” label with or without the community’s consent and that the real question is how to ensure it does not come at too cheap of a price and that the global LGBTI movement benefits from it. And indeed, if from a legal point of view, social change on LGBTI issues are indeed the purview of government many global corporations go beyond the call of duty in advocating for LGBTI equality. Coalitions of companies, such as Out Leadership, a global LGBT+ business network of CEOs and multinational companies, are leading collective action from amicus briefs to diplomatic efforts behind closed doors globally. In the past two years, my office, the UN Human Rights office, has engaged companies and activists in an effort for the private sector to fulfill its responsibilities on human rights of LGBTI people but also use opportunities to shape a better world for them through the United Nations Human Rights LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business.

To date, 260 of the World largest companies have publicly expressed support for these Standards. Most of them are outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, a sign that corporate’s commitment to LGBTI equality is spreading globally. The list includes many Italian companies such as Barilla, Eataly, UniCredit, Safilo and Gucci. I have also led new efforts to empower LGBTI civil society to engage with and hold the private sector accountable as well as connect with other corporate social responsibility civil society watchdogs. Ultimately, the growing interest of companies in global LGBTI equality can turn into concrete progress in a genuine winwin partnership. The decisions companies take – whether in respect of human resources, investment, their supply chains, even marketing – can have a real and, in some cases, profound impact on the human rights of LGBTI people.

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