Big-Name Retailers Make Pride Merchandise in Places That Aren’t LGBT-Friendly

The merchandise has never been more plentiful or easier to find. Tote bags that say “United” from H&M. T-shirts emblazoned with “I Am Proud” from Levi Strauss & Co. An inflatable, rainbow-colored whale from Target — a “Pride Narwhal.”

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Christina Caron
, New York Times

The merchandise has never been more plentiful or easier to find. Tote bags that say “United” from H&M. T-shirts emblazoned with “I Am Proud” from Levi Strauss & Co. An inflatable, rainbow-colored whale from Target — a “Pride Narwhal.”

Pride month has drawn a wide range of big-name retailers offering thematic merchandise timed to the celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

But some retailers, including H&M, the European fast fashion retailer Primark, Target and Levi Strauss, manufacture their merchandise in countries where it is either illegal to be gay or where persecution is commonplace.

Primark, which has hundreds of stores across Europe and the United States, has seen a backlash from some LGBTQ advocates. It is selling pride-themed items like rainbow fanny packs and sequined caps.

A statement from the company confirmed that the items in its collection are manufactured in China, Turkey and Myanmar, all of which have a poor record on gay rights. In Myanmar, being gay is grounds for imprisonment.

Steve Taylor, a board member of the European Pride Organizers Association, a networking group that supports the planning and promotion of pride celebrations, said he finds that unacceptable.

“One of the Primark T-shirts printed in Myanmar says ‘Love Is Love.’ Well, no, it’s not if you live in Myanmar,” Taylor said.

We take LGBT rights very seriously,” the company said in a statement, adding that Primark is donating 20 percent of the sales of its Pride products to Stonewall, the largest LGBT charity in Europe.

When asked about Primark’s supply chain, a representative for Stonewall said in a statement that international businesses often operate in countries “where the context for LGBT people can be challenging.”

“Funding from this partnership will help our international work across many countries,” where there is discrimination and abuse, the statement said, including Turkey, where it is is working to push for equality.

Other big retailers have also partnered with rights groups. For example, H&M which debuted its first pride collection this year. At the company’s location in Times Square, paper tags touting a partnership appear on shorts with rainbow ribbons and tote bags that say “Equality.”

The tags remind customers that 10 percent of each sale will go to United Nations Free & Equal, a global campaign aimed at promoting equal rights and fair treatment of people of all gender identities and sexualities around the world.

When asked about its manufacturing practices, a statement from an H&M representative said the items in its pride collection were made in China, Turkey, Bangladesh and India.

In India and Bangladesh, homosexuality is criminalized. Homosexuality isn’t a crime in Turkey, but gay rights activists there say the LGBT community is not safe, and that there are no laws to protect them.

“We have made products in these countries for a long time,” an H&M representative said, “and this collection is made by suppliers we have worked with for many years.”

When asked about H&M’s decision to manufacture its pride memorabilia in these locations, Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for theUnited Nations Human Rights Office, said it was a complex issue.

“When we do these partnerships with companies, we do due diligence to make sure we’re not partnering with companies that are complicit with human rights violations,” she said.

Making pride T-shirts in a place where homosexuality is illegal could be considered a way of making inroads toward more human rights, she said.

“I’m by no means implying that it’s a revolution,” she added.

Other retailers that manufacture pride merchandise in countries with poor LGBT records pointed to other ways they support gay rights. A spokeswoman from Target, which uses sites in Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to produce goods, pointed to the company’s long-standing support of local, regional and national organizations.

“As we always do, we’ll continue to source our products with vendors,” she said, that “show a respect for human rights.”

For its part, Levi Strauss & Co., which makes its pride merchandise in China, India, Madagascar and Mexico, provides grants to organizations that support and advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities in those countries, a spokeswoman, Amber McCasland, said in an email.

The organization also was on the forefront of multinational apparel companies establishing a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for manufacturing suppliers, McCasland said.

Pride apparel and accessories are in demand. “So far, it looks like this year is selling at twice the rate of prior years,” she said.

It’s good business for retailers to appeal to different groups of consumers, said Roger Beahm, a professor of marketing at the Wake Forest University School of Business. “It enhances the image as well as the short-term bottom line.”

The corporatization of gay pride has long drawn mixed reactions from the community. Selling pride merchandise means greater visibility and a show of financial support. But major companies often use generic language about love instead of using the word “gay,” and several aspects of manufacturing practices are troublesome to those in the retail world.

Clothing quality is important to Rachel Berks, the owner of Otherwild, a Los Angeles-based retailer that she describes as “unabashedly gay.”

“It costs me $11 to make a short-sleeved T-shirt,” said Berks, who added that her shirts do not yield big profits. “And that’s because I really care about how I’m making it.”

Otherwild sells locally made goods, Berks said, including an apparel line inspired by Herstory, an Instagram project documenting lesbian imagery, and uses cotton grown in the United States.

Some of its popular items include a plain white tee with the word “Dyke” in capital letters, inspired by a button photographed in Washington in 1994.

“It’s not as easy as saying let’s make everything in the U.S.,” she said. “Then what happens to workers in other countries?” Dean Malka the president of Swish Embassy, a clothing retailer based in Toronto that caters to gay men, chooses to manufacture most of his clothing in the United States. The rest is made in the United Kingdom or Latvia, he said.

“It doesn’t bother me that H&M or Primark produce pride memorabilia,” he said in an email. “In fact, I think it’s a positive indicator of where our community has arrived in terms of acceptance.”

Even so, he said, “it does bother me if they are sourcing from countries with no LGBT protections. If a company like ours can make the right choices to source from countries with at least basic protections for LGBT rights, I don’t see why they couldn’t.”

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