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How to celebrate Pride with merch at your small business

Pride Month is around the corner; is your small business ready with a plan to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community? Also: Do you know what rainbow washing is, and how not to do it with your merchandise?

Pride started out as a riot. On June 28, 1969, police raided the popular New York gay bar the Stonewall Inn, sparking a six-day clash that ignited the gay rights movement. The inaugural Pride marches took place in 1970 in cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. 

Decades later, Pride has become an international celebration marked by parades, marches, parties, and endless piles of swag items. The commercialization of Pride Month remains a hot discussion in the community, but there are plenty of ways that small businesses can participate without inappropriately capitalizing on the occasion. Here are seven simple steps to help you get started.

1. Walk the walk before you talk the talk

Before you stock up on rainbow flags, shirts, and mugs, it’s worth considering how your company supports the LGBTQ+ community year-round. 

Each June, countless brands transform their logos into rainbows and begin stocking specialized, colorful merchandise. As communication specialist Ed Watson told Forbes in an article about “rainbow washing,” it’s encouraging that so many firms “are literally showing their pride in pride, and it’s great that there is so much visibility.” 

At the same time, Watson added, “I rather cynically question whether many are tokenistically searching for the ‘pot of gold’ at the end of the rainbow.”

Make sure your organization meaningfully supports LGBTQ+ equality and safety on an ongoing basis—not just in June, when “pink money” is most readily up for grabs. At the very least, it’s crucial to make sure that you’ve created an inclusive workplace in your small business, and that allyship is part of your culture. 

It’s also worth exploring what financial steps your small business could take to support the cause—whether that be through donations to organizations like The Trevor Project, or through a product or service that sends a portion of its profits to such organizations.

2. Tie your swag to your business

Now that you’ve made sure your company’s Pride efforts reflect your small business’s culture, it’s time to start shopping. But what should you buy?

Favorites around Pride Month include tote bags, shirts, mugs, water bottles, stickers and pins. As with any merchandise, it helps to consider which products feel most closely related to your small business. A bakery might go with mugs or specialty menu items, while an accounting firm might opt for custom stress balls or other office supplies. 

Whatever product you choose to feature, just make sure you don’t get too cute. As charming as, say, an “LGBT” sandwich that includes lettuce, guacamole, bacon, and tomato might sound, the product did not go over well with everyone when tested by one UK retailer in real life. Well-intentioned as some creative ideas might be, at times it can be best to keep things simple.

Two women waving a pride flag

Explore the small business guide to Pride

Find the tools and resources you need to be a strong ally to your customers and employees, support the LGBTQ+ community, and make an impact year-round.

3. Stock inclusive sizes

Just like everyone else, LGBTQ+ people come in all shapes and sizes, and all of them deserve attention. If your small business’s Pride Month merchandise includes apparel, make sure your sizing doesn’t leave some folks out. 

Thanks to the growing body positivity movement and an increased resistance to the negative stigma associated with so-called “plus” sizes, inclusive sizing is becoming more the norm. By making sure that your Pride products will fit all of your prospective customers, you’ll foster goodwill and prove that your allyship is for everyone—not only those whose bodies conform to one arbitrary standard.

4. Don’t Co-opt the Rainbow—But Also, Go Beyond the Rainbow

It can be tempting to treat the Pride flag like any old rainbow, but Gilbert Baker’s original emblem (designed in 1978 for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day) actually assigned a symbolic meaning to each color. If your merchandise is part of a larger campaign, consider how your marketing addresses themes of personhood, activism, and solidarity that are in keeping with the occasion. 

As tempting as it can be to go straight for the rainbow, it’s vital to remember that the LGBTQ+ community extends far beyond one identity or banner. In addition to the traditional Pride flag, try incorporating the lesbian pride flag, the transgender pride flag, the pansexual pride flag, and more into your merchandise collection this year. 

For reference, the Human Rights Campaign offers a handy guide to all of the flags. 

5. Buy local

It might be tempting (and most feasible) to stock mass-produced merchandise from a national or international retailer. If possible, however, your small business might benefit even more if you use Pride as an opportunity to connect and establish partnerships with homegrown, LGBTQ+-owned enterprises.

It also never hurts to establish a partnership with another local business, either. To get started, check with your Chamber of Commerce or local advocacy organizations to see who might make an ideal swag partner.

6. Make sure your merch gives back

Want to make sure your Pride efforts don’t ring hollow? One easy step is to make sure that whatever eye-popping items you’re selling, a portion of the proceeds directly benefit the community you’re celebrating. There are countless organizations to choose from, including the Human Rights Campaign, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, the Genders & Sexualities Network, SAGE, and more. Do some reading and decide which organization(s) your small business might most want to support. If you’re consistent, even “little by little” over a number of years can go a long way.

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