In an era of growing mainstream consumption, the commercialization and commodification of social movements have become increasingly prevalent within corporate culture. Black History Month in February sees an influx of businesses marketing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and campaigns. Women’s History Month receives advertisements of feminist merchandise and corporate paeans for gender equity. During June, with major retailers parading a myriad of splashy rainbow commodities, Pride Month resembles a month-long Hallmark holiday. Like clockwork, brand logos awash in rainbow hues: gestures of solidarity with the movement. However, as July comes around, Pride merch slowly moves to clearance racks, and corporate “allyship” seems to vanish just as quickly as it began.
While we would all like to believe that Walmart sells Pride t-shirts out of charity, these products are often just another tactic for economic and social gain. There is a distinction between a marketing tactic and genuine allyship with a social movement, one often negligible in the public eye; people often purchase these items to show support for different movements. However, behind the scenes, the multi-billion corporations hanging billboards to celebrate queer individuals during Pride month sometimes support their greatest oppressors. Corporation such as AT&T and Walmart lead annual Pride marches with glamorous promotional floats, a fig leaf to cover for millions of dollars allocated bankrolling legislators such as Bill Flores (R-TX), who believes gay marriage is a “breakdown of the family.”
Though the hypocritical actions of these corporations are condemnable, they have a fair share of partners in crime. McDonald’s, the multibillion fast food company loved by millions of Americans, allocated $213,000 to lawmakers who voted against the Equality Act, preventing discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace, criminal justice, and other public accommodations.
Ironically, on June 1, McDonalds tweeted, “We’re proud of you. And you should be proud of you, too. This month, we’ll be celebrating and highlighting the people within our McDonald’s family who embody the spirit of LGBTQ+ Pride.”
What about that glittery Pride shirt? Try to look past the sequins. Fast fashion giants like Primark and H&M rely on cheap overseas laborers in countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, countries where homosexuality is criminalized, to source their Pride garments according to the New York Times. And, instead of receiving reparations addressing centuries of institutional slavery, Nike capitalizes on forced sweatshop labor in countries such as Myanmar to manufacture Black Lives Matter goods. Corporate “activism” oftentimes does not leave the economic sphere, with profit and gaining social capital being at their forefront — leaving a null impact on social change. Yet it is the commodities from these corporations that are marketed to consumers as bona fide symbols of allyship.
Critics often admonish the presumption of these ideas, citing that the commercialism of a social movement entails the recognition of a marginalized group as a marketable and valuable consumer base. But is this commercialization an actual progression? While altruism is unrealistic and ultimately not feasible in a capitalistic society, shouldn’t corporations be run with a conscience? It is true that as marginalized groups become more accepted by society, they develop sufficient purchasing power, mainstream recognition was a pipe dream for the segregated and discriminated African Americans and the queer individuals facing public brutality in history books.
However, corporate recognition often overshadows the fact that these systemic issues are still present in today’s society. Gay conversion therapy is still legal in 37 states, and similar anti-LGBTQ+ organizations are often endorsed by corporations such as Chick-fil-A through their charitable arm, the Chick-fil-A Foundation. Homosexuality is illegal in 74 countries, and a record-high of 375 transgender individuals were murdered globally in hate crimes in 2021. When capitalist values are placed at the forefront of social movements, the advocacy for them essentially becomes gauged by materialistic possessions, instead of genuine advocacy for systemic change. Activist sentiment towards a movement becomes tied to a tangible product, and the purchasing of these commodities often replaces actual, direct action. Essentially, social movements risk losing their activist crux and becoming seasonal fads.
Not only is the commodification and commercialization of these historical and current struggles invalidating for marginalized individuals, but seeing this complex dimension of their identity glamorized and glossed over in mainstream media can be alienating. By acknowledging and condemning the co-opting and over-commercialization of social movements by corporations, we can come closer to recognizing, and addressing the true systemic injustices faced by these communities. But are we holding ourselves to the same standards? As consumers, we play a crucial part in shaping corporate culture. Rather than only blindly waving a Pride flag in June, or purchasing Black History Month T-shirt in February, donate to a charity striving towards the betterment of these marginalized communities year-round, and listen to these voices year-round. The journey towards equality will continue to matter long after rainbow socks, Black Lives Matter keychains, and cute retail disappear from social media pages and store windows.