Why it matters that international traders back up Pride Month celebrations with action

Thu 22 Jun 2023
Posted by: William Barns-Graham
Features

Happy Pride Month

Pride Month is celebrated in several countries every year and many businesses, large and small, take to social media to show their support for the LGBT+ community.

But why does it matter that businesses do this? Why do organisations, whose primary function is presumably to make profits, feel compelled to upload rainbow-coloured versions of their logos onto social media profiles for one month a year?

This question has become particularly pertinent following accusations of corporate ‘pinkwashing’ from some people within the LGBT+ community. However, Andy Melia, the director of strategic partnerships at Open for Business, a coalition of global companies dedicated to LGBT+ inclusion, argues that visibility for LGBT+ employees at companies is important, particularly having grown up in a world “where there was no visibility”.

Melia refers to the now infamous Section 28 legislation, as part of the Local Government Act 1988, which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities in the UK and was in effect between 1988 and 2003. He says it’s important that senior business leaders from the community are now visible and can act as role models for younger LGBT+ people entering the workforce.

“Being able to see businesses now demonstrate that they are open and accepting, with senior business leaders speaking out about that and being role models, is fundamentally important to demonstrating that businesses have values around diversity in both the workforce and customer base,” he says.

But amid accusations of pinkwashing, he says businesses need to be able to “back up” that their support for the community has substance.

“It can't just be a logo change or putting the rainbow on a few products. It’s got to be backed up with internal policies about how you treat your staff. Do you have an inclusive culture that supports employees to be their authentic selves at work? Do you recognise and value the power of diversity in your approach to recruitment?

“And it’s also about how you can be advocate for the community. This might not necessarily be in the public, but businesses should ensure they use their influence in the different available channels.

“The pinkwashing accusations can sometimes stand because some organisations do just slap on the logo. The important thing is to be able to demonstrate what you’re doing all year round to support your employees to feel included.”

Hunter Matson, a trade policy and research specialist at the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT), agrees, saying businesses should “strive to create and enforce inclusive policies, ensuring equal treatment for all”.

Good business sense

As we explored last week when looking at the role of trade policy in supporting LGBT+ rights globally, there is an economic case to be made for inclusivity at the national level. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that a similar case can be made for businesses.

A study by Credit Suisse in 2016, cited by Open for Business in its own economic case for inclusivity, found that a ‘basket’ of 275 companies with openly LGBT+ management outperformed global stocks and benchmarks. Open for Business has also collected data that shows that more inclusive businesses can better retain and attract talent, have higher levels of creativity, are better able to anticipate changing consumer trends, and have broader brand appeal. Melia also says that such businesses have approximately a 20% higher proportion of their revenue coming from international markets.

“There is clear data that shows the positive impact LGBT+ inclusivity has for a business’ ability to access trade.

“This economic case gives business leaders an opportunity to have different conversations about the priorities and values of the societies they’re trading in.”

Human rights first

But Melia also makes the point that the core reason for businesses to prioritise inclusivity is to “protect the human rights of their employees, their customers, their suppliers and everyone else”.

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust, a charity fighting for LGBT+ rights in the Commonwealth, adds that this also a matter of “corporate accountability and responsibility”. She explains:

“Businesses which care about human rights should be explicitly embedding expectations about the treatment of LGBT+ people into their business dealings.

“This is not only an objective in its own right, it also in turn encourages the partners with whom they do business to pay more attention to these issues.”

She adds that this is particularly important in respect to international trade, saying that there “are clear opportunities to promote inclusive economic growth by ensuring that the opportunity to engage with international markets and businesses is made accessible to LGBTI+ owned or inclusive businesses.”

LGBT+ inclusive supply chains

For businesses operating internationally, with at-times complicated multinational supply chains involving countries with varying attitudes towards LGBT+ people, this can be challenging.

Matson nonetheless argues that such businesses should “strive” towards ensuring businesses ensure the “fair treatment for all, including LGBT+ individuals, across their supply chains”.

“They should actively encourage diversity, implement non-discrimination policies and provide supportive resources.

“These efforts play a crucial role in not just promoting equality, but in nurturing a culture that values and respects all employees irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

He adds that businesses should ask would-be suppliers about whether they have equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies and officers in place.

Opoku-Gyimah agrees, saying that LGBT+ and broader human rights should be an “explicit consideration when procuring goods and services, and asking suppliers to provide evidence of how they protect LGBT+ workers.”

Matson argues that this “isn’t just about compliance or reputational management”, but is a “fundamental aspect of corporate social responsibility.

“Each business carries a moral imperative to foster an environment of inclusivity and respect, both within their organisations and across their operational footprint,” he adds.

Standards

There are various standards that businesses can now aspire to reaching on matters around inclusivity, including the environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) standards that have emerged over recent decades and been increasingly incentivised by multilateral bodies like the UN.

The UN also issued ‘standards of conduct for business’ in 2017 addressing ‘Tackling Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, & Intersex People’.

Salil Tripathi, a senior advisor on global issues at the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), and a co-author of the 2017 UN standards, said that the paper sought to build on the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights as the UN Human Rights Office expanded its campaign called ‘Free and Equal’, with the aim of ensuring companies can promote LGBT+ rights within their workplace and societies.

It was the result of five consultations in Brazil, Belgium, India, Uganda and the US. Although the consultation in Uganda was the “most challenging”, the one in India was most timely as the country, at the time, was on the cusp of decriminalising homosexual relationships.

“We held the consultations with all kinds of constituents, including local companies and multinationals. We developed standards that were simple enough to comply with the relevant laws, which could enable people to come out if they wish to but while also protecting their privacy if they don’t want to.

“They provide a system of checks and balances for companies internally and facilitate public advocacy where it is safe to do so.”

However, he says that it remains the case that it is not always safe for companies from places like western Europe, where LGBT+ rights are generally well protected, to overly celebrate occasions like Pride Month in countries where LGBT+ people are not as well protected, as there has been backlash against it.

He warns that this can still “provoke resentment” for vulnerable people in these countries, even though the resentment is misplaced. The challenge for companies is to stand firm on its values while consulting affected communities so as not to harm their rights, he adds.

Nonetheless, Tripathi suggests that these standards can be effective for people in civil society “to hold companies accountable” and adds that the take-up has been positive in several countries, with approximately 400 companies signing up to them.

Taking a lead

Ultimately, standards – alongside coalitions like Open for Business and charities such as Kaleidoscope Trust – are there to support and enable businesses to demonstrate that they care about these issues and on an international scale.

Cultural differences remain on LGBT+ rights in different countries, but human rights advocates argue that human rights standards are universal, and not culture-specific. And by being vigilant to review internal policies and workplace culture, and by being diligent about selecting international partners and suppliers, businesses can make a difference.

Get in touch

The IOE&IT Daily Update team has been publishing features about LGBT+ issues in trade throughout Pride Month this year and is keen to hear from LBGT+ individuals and members working in the international trade sector.

If you’d like to be share any comments about the features or your experiences relating to LGBT+ issues and trade, please contact content@export.org.uk.