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Poland's LGBTQ-friendly businesses roll on despite politics

Priyanka Shankar
October 14, 2023

Many businesses in Poland are keen to keep embracing the rainbow, even if a political party that doesn't support LGBTQ+ rights wins the upcoming national elections.

Sebastian Wareluk and Wojciech Ostrowski, sporting rainbow colored bags in Warsaw, Poland workshop
Sebastian Wareluk and Wojciech Ostrowski aren't afraid to sell bags that cater to Poland's LGBTQ communityImage: Priyanka Shankar/DW

Poland's capital, Warsaw, has become a center for multinational companies and global investment banks to set up offices, as the country aims to become Central Europe's financial hub.

But, a few streets away from the bustle of Warsaw's business district, in the basement of a residential building, Sebastian Wareluk's sewing machine whirs constantly.

Wareluk and his partner, Wojciech Ostrowski, are the owners of backpack company Dwa Borsuki. While they make a range of bags for big companies like haircare brand Garnier, their business also has a sizeable clientele from Poland's LGBTQ community

"We started this business about four and a half years ago with an aim to make colorful backpacks. We're also a gay couple and don't want to hide our identity, so we started focusing on making rainbow bags and backpacks that cater to customers from the LGBTQ+ community or anyone who supports the community in Poland," Ostrowski told DW.

Rainbow coloured socks are seen in Kubota, a Polish flip-flops brand store
Businesses like Kubota are realizing the potential of Poland's 'pink economy'Image: Priyanka Shankar/DW

LGBTQ and Polish politics

The rights of people from the LGBTQ community in Poland have been threatened in recent years by the anti-LGBTQ narrative of the country's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

Two years ago, several communities in the country declared themselves to be "LGBTQ ideology free zones." However, some places have rescinded this status after the EU condemned such discrimination.

Despite these challenges, businesses like Dwa Boruski haven't shied away from catering to the community or realizing the potential of Poland's "pink money," a term for the purchasing power of the LGBTQ community.

'Pink money' throughout Poland

Ian Johnson, chief executive of Out Now, a global marketing firm that specializes in LGBTQ research and marketing, told DW that among the 10 largest EU economies, Poland's "pink economy" is ranked seventh and accounts for almost 165 billion zloty (€36 billion; $38.2 billion) a year.

"Given that 'pink money' represents the combined incomes earned by Poland's almost two million LGBTQ adults — and that these consumers are responsible for earnings of almost €36 billion each year — it's logical that businesses would be interested in building an advantageous position to attract more of this income," Johnson added.

From big multinational companies like ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's, which made a rainbow hologram to support LGBTQ rights, to Wareluk and Ostrowkski's small business, the potential of Poland's "pink money" has been an incentive to continue catering to the community, despite politics.

But Ostrowkski says that their business is also about attracting clientele who support the LGBTQ community. Dwa Borsuki customers even get a rebate if they show they've made a donation to an LGBTQ organization.

Why is Poland bad for the LGBTQ+ community?

An hour and a half away from Warsaw, in the former textile manufacturing city of Lodz, Waclaw Miklaszewski, the co-founder of Kubota, a Polish flip-flop brand that also supports the LGBTQ community, shares a similar view.

"We don't wait for the government to understand these things because society understands things much faster. It was just normal for us to support the LGBTQ community in Poland," Miklaszewski told DW.

Kubota's colorful flip-flops have been famous in Poland since the mid-1990s. Now they have a turnover of over €6 million per year and listed on the Polish stock exchange last year.

Miklaszewski says that as a public company, supporting the LGBTQ community is not only about sporting the rainbow logo. "It's also about practicing support in every product that is a part of our rainbow collection," he said. "We do so by giving quite a big amount of income generated from these products to the NGOs that support the LGBTQ movement."

Society and businesses that support LGBTQ people

While businesses like Kubota and Dwa Borsuki remain outspoken about supporting the LGBTQ community, not everyone in Poland has come to terms with it. 

"My mother stopped talking to me when she heard about who our business caters to. She supports the Law and Justice party and their ideologies," Ostrowski said, adding that in small towns and villages, such feelings are common.

A young Polish woman on the streets of Warsaw told DW that while the current government or any new government has to make choices based on politics and economics, people can still make a difference.

"We have a choice as people to support the LGBTQ community and their business and help our economy grow. I personally like simple colors and not rainbow colors so won't buy rainbow products. But I have no issue supporting the businesses," she said.

Kubota, a flip-flop shop in a Warsaw, Poland, mall
Kubota, a Polish flip-flop brand is upfront about supporting the country's LGBTQ+ communityImage: Priyanka Shankar/DW

What do businesses expect from upcoming elections?

Poland heads to the polls on October 15. Migration, women's and LGBTQ rights, and the war in Ukraine are among the major campaign topics.

While the pink economy contributes about 5% of Poland's nearly €700 billion in annual GDP, Ostrowski thinks that as long as a business brings in money governments are happy.

Meanwhile, Piotr Arak, director of the Polish Economic Institute, told DW that it is wiser for politics to simply stay out of the economy. To make a country thrive they should just create regulations that enable individuals and businesses to grow.

Counting on the LGBTQ vote?

But Out Now's Johnson argues that Polish politicians should care about the pink economy, because LGBTQ voters comprise almost 2 million votes in total, a figure that can be important in a tight contest.

"We anticipate that political candidates choosing to demonstrate support for equal treatment of LGBTQ people should expect to find the 2023 electoral landscape much more favorable than during the 2019 national parliamentary election, when support for LGBTQ people across Polish society was far less widespread," Johnson said.

Meanwhile, for flip-flop maker Kubota, the results of the upcoming election aren't going to stop their LGBTQ support.

"Elections or no elections, as a business we're here to support the LGBTQ community. There is no place for confrontation. If any politician is against it, we'll just send them our flip-flops and some flowers," Miklaszewski said.

Edited by: Tim Rooks