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Rainbow Listerine and bottles of Bud Light: what happens to the merch when Pride is over

We reached out to two dozen top retailers and brands to find out where all the unsold product (and the money) goes after June.

The window of a clothing store on July 4, 2018, ahead of the upcoming “Pride London” event.
Leon Neal/Getty Images

New York City may still be strewn with rainbow glitter and confetti — all the detritus of Sunday’s WorldPride march celebrations, which drew an estimated 2.5 million people — but as of the early hours of July 1, Pride Month was officially over for corporate America.

The rainbow logos are (for the most part) gone, the homepages and store windows have been changed, and the email marketing blasts have moved on to all things red, white, and blue for the Fourth of July. All of which is understandable (June is over, after all), but it does raise the question: What happens to all the leftover stuff?

Pride-themed merchandise has become ubiquitous almost to the point of self-parody in the past couple of years: Listerine mouthwash? Gay! Unicorn pool floats? Gay! American Eagle tank tops? Super Gay™!

Depending on whom you ask, this preponderance of rainbow swag is an encouraging sign of the progress the LGBTQ+ community has made, annoying corporate pandering, or both. (As the playwright Claire Willett put it in a viral Twitter thread last month, “It’s not nothing to have moved the needle so far that companies have decided the big money is on the side of pandering to us instead of to the people who hate us.”)

Of course, that rests on brands actually giving back to the community and supporting their own LGBTQ+ employees year round: Last year, Adidas was called hypocritical for selling a rainbow-laden “Pride pack” of merch while sponsoring the World Cup in Russia, a country whose laws made the event unsafe for LGBTQ+ fans and athletes.

And that’s to say nothing of President Donald Trump’s rainbow Make America Great Again hats, which his campaign has sold for $35 a pop while his administration continues its efforts to remove nondiscrimination protections for transgender people under the Affordable Care Act, allow homeless shelters to deny people access based on “privacy, safety, practical concerns, religious beliefs” (a policy that could affect the one in three transgender people who experience homelessness in their lifetimes, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality), and bar transgender troops from serving in the military.

Whatever their motives, brands today make far more T-shirts, fanny packs, and sneakers than most could possibly hope to sell in a single month — and in retail, inventory is money, so that extra merch needs to go somewhere.

Unfortunately for anyone waiting patiently for a discount, Pride gear doesn’t behave quite like Halloween candy: Only 14.3 percent of products that arrived new in 2019 were marked down as of July 1, at an average discount of 37 percent, according to the retail analytics firm Edited. One brand that’s already slashed prices is Express, which is donating 25 percent of the net income from its “Love Unites” collection to GLAAD through July 15 at a minimum donation of $100,000.

Others, like Nike, are still carrying what’s left of their stock at full price, though Nike’s “Be True” collection (which this year took its inspiration from the original rainbow flag created in 1978 by the political activist Gilbert Baker) is already mostly sold out. Nike says it has provided $3.6 million to LGBTQ+ organizations since 2012, and this year’s collection supports more than 20 orgs through grants administered by the Charities Aid Foundation of America. On the resale marketplace StockX, two sold-out sneaker styles from the line — the Air Max 90 and Air Max 720 — have been selling for a premium since they launched last month.

Few labels generate the kind of hype that Nike does, though, and a quick perusal of the internet reveals hundreds of still-in-stock products. Are they available year-round? If they don’t sell, are they donated to a nonprofit, like the losing team’s preprinted Super Bowl shirts? Or are they destroyed? (Burning, shredding, or slashing excess merchandise in the name of brand protection is one of fashion’s dirty secrets; Burberry, Nike, Urban Outfitters, Michael Kors, and Victoria’s Secret are just some of the companies that have been called out in recent years for destroying products rather than donating or recycling them, though after public outcry, Burberry ended the practice in September.)

I reached out to two dozen top brands and retailers to find out their post-Pride plans. Target said it plans to donate leftover merchandise from its collection to a third-party organization, per the company’s standard protocol, though it declined to name which. Bud Light’s rainbow GLAAD bottles will be on sale until bars and retailers run out, the company said; it’s sold more than 500,000 bottles and, with a donation of $1 per case sold, expects to give upward of $150,000 to the advocacy group.

You might see those Listerine bottles on shelves at Walmart and Target past June too. “If there is retailer inventory remaining, it will be repositioned on-shelf and remain available online for purchase,” said a spokesperson, adding that extra bottles from the distribution center will be donated to the Family Equality Council, a nonprofit supporting LGBTQ families.

American Apparel’s “Everyone’s Gay” shirts, Bombas’s rainbow socks, Stoli’s “Spirit of Stonewall” bottle, Toms’ “Unity” slip-ons, Asos’s GLAAD collaboration, and Lucky Brand’s “Lucky x Love” tees will all be available until they sell out, the brands said. Asos even has some of the rainbow ampersand tees from last year’s collection still in stock.

A few brands are holding longer-running initiatives: H&M’s Pride collection — 10 percent of whose sales benefit the United Nations Free & Equal campaign — is on sale through the fall, the company said, though the landing page appears to have been wiped from its US site; Barefoot Wine is offering custom rainbow labels online through the end of October, with $1 of each sale going to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights for AIDS.

As it turns out, the Super Bowl comparison doesn’t quite fit: While the team merch retailer Fanatics carries hundreds of rainbow tees branded with logos from the NFL, MLB, WNBA, and others, they’re manufactured on demand and available year-round.

Gap, Diesel, Zappos, Nordstrom, and Reebok didn’t respond to requests for comment; Levi’s said it was unable to comment due to scheduling; and a representative for American Eagle responded, “Unfortunately at this time we won’t be able to move forward on this opportunity.”

Only one brand, Happy Socks, said its Pride socks were part of its permanent collection; it also sells themed gift boxes every year but said those always sell out. Additionally, this year it partnered with the gender-neutral store the Phluid Project on two pairs of socks, including one with “Feet Have No Gender” emblazoned down the side; they retail for $16 per pair, with 10 percent of proceeds going to the Stonewall Community Foundation. The Phluid Project is one of many queer-owned independent businesses —including Otherwild, Wildfang, and Dfrntpigeon — that sells merchandise celebrating (and giving back to) the community year round.

”We regularly donate product to LGBTQ-focused youth organizations and are continuously seeking out opportunities to partner with local groups to better support LGBTQ efforts on an ongoing basis,” a spokesperson for Happy Socks said.

So while the torrent of rainbows every June may seem a little extra these days, that’s because the products are actually selling: according to Edited market analyst Kayla Marci, a quarter of US mass-market Pride merch was replenished during the month, indicating additional demand.

That’s especially notable considering that just two decades ago, a Gallup poll found that nearly half of Americans thought homosexuality should be illegal, and an older generation of LGBTQ New Yorkers can still remember the Stonewall riots, the 1969 uprising of gay and trans patrons — many of them people of color — at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn.

On the 50th anniversary of the protests this year, the bar’s facade was plastered with banners from JetBlue (“Raising the bar together”) and Brooklyn Brewery (“#pourproudly”). In a statement to Eater, Stonewall co-owner Stacy Lentz called the brands “actually great authentic partners” and “good examples of how corporate sponsors should be … giving money directly to LGBTQ nonprofits and supporting our community the other 364 days of the year and not just on Pride.”

Critics within the community, though, argue that the omnipresence of rainbow-logoed corporations at Pride commodifies what was once a revolutionary political event and distracts from the violence and discrimination many marginalized groups still face at home and around the world. For better or for worse, the signs are up all year.

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