Liberal Consumerism

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Issue 14, Volume 112

By Quainat Mariam 

Almost a year after ​​the Supreme Court decision that made gay marriage legal across the U.S., stores across my neighborhood decorated their walls and storefronts with queer merchandise in June of 2016. As a young tween, June became one of my favorite months for this reason. There were always flags, attractive pro-LGBTQ+ ads, pride merchandise, and “#gay” mugs being sold.

The feeling of community and belonging, of the “pride” these decorated stores instilled in me, is the same feeling I get when I enter a store and am immediately met with its eco-friendly items. I feel optimistic and satisfied when I check out at H&M and the cashier prints me a receipt with green calligraphy and its footer: “Thank you for purchasing from CONSCIOUS.” The rewarding feeling I get when I purchase or even see things being sold in the name of movements and issues I care about is unlike any other. It feels like a collective accomplishment: something to be proud of, to promote, and to praise stores and companies for.

Of course, companies are aware of this effect; they know that queer merchandise and eco-friendly items invoke a feeling of sentimentality and accomplishment. In fact, this idea is a new marketing tactic that has been developed with the intention of appealing to a liberal and progressive audience made up of people like myself. This marketing strategy is so successful that it has been given names: greenwashing, in reference to eco-friendly companies, and pinkwashing, the same concept applied to pro-LGBTQ+ companies.

In the case of greenwashing, companies claim to be eco-friendly in an effort to appeal to a growing conscious population that is concerned with the future of the environment. H&M, for instance, has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and consistently adds to its supposedly sustainable CONSCIOUS collection, which is produced in factories with a less toxic eco-footprint. In reality, H&M, among other “eco-friendly,” large companies, lacks consistency in its ethics and morals. As users of the “fast fashion” business model, these companies contribute to large textile waste and are known to use low-quality materials. However, by using buzzwords and other “green” terms to describe their commitments, these companies are able to appeal to a growing consumer class—progressive teens and new adults looking to support companies that align with their values.

This marketing model extends to companies appealing to queer people as well. Facebook launched a pride reaction button that users could use as an emote in June of 2019. Though Facebook initially received praise for celebrating queer people, it was soon discovered that the company utilized its notorious algorithm to only offer the reaction button to particular users, those who previously interacted with LGBTQ+ posts or live in large, pro-LGBTQ+ cities. This initiative was an effort on Facebook’s part to protect their popularity in anti-LGBTQ+ spaces and exemplifies companies’ prioritization of their images. To Facebook and other companies, LGBTQ+ pride is nothing but a marketing strategy.

Pinkwashing further extends to hypocrisy among corporations and their treatment of queer workers. Most notably, companies that have committed to LGBTQ+ rights, brandishing this feat as a progressive accomplishment, have failed to uphold their commitments. AT&T, for example, flaunts its triumph in being one of the first major corporations to adopt policy that prohibits sexual orientation-based discrimination. Meanwhile, it funds Floridian politicians known for being anti-LGBTQ+, a betrayal of the workers it claims to protect. This example highlights that companies find usefulness in the marketability and appeal of queer issues, but aren’t true allies to these causes.

There is no true escape from greenwashing and pinkwashing. As the key consumer class has slowly shifted to reflect more liberal, younger people, both greenwashing and pinkwashing are becoming big marketing strategies. However, companies need to modify the way they interact with their consumers. There should be a moral obligation not only to listen to their audience, but also to respect their consumers—not committing to their promises is an act of deception, and companies owe their consumers transparency.