NEW YORK, United States — As protests against police killings and racism spread across the country, most of America’s beauty brands responded at first by posting a few words of support on social media sites.
That wasn’t nearly enough for Sharon Chuter, the Nigerian-born founder of makeup company Uoma Beauty. She began a campaign to pressure businesses in her industry to do something more tangible -- for starters, releasing the percent of their black employees. It worked. Several of the nation’s biggest cosmetics businesses shared the numbers —some as low as 3 percent for leadership roles — including Coty, Estée Lauder, Revlon Inc. and the U.S. division of L’Oreal.
“I knew it would turn my industry upside-down,” said Chuter, a former executive at French luxury giant LVMH. “It was needed. It was necessary.”
The corporate world is facing an unprecedented reckoning on race as the protests seep into boardrooms and executive suites. Executives at Conde Nast, Crossfit and The Wing have stepped down after employees inspired by the moment have spoken out about discriminatory behaviour. Companies from Goldman Sachs to Nike are donating millions to racial justice causes, pledging to boost hiring of minorities and taking public stances embracing Black Lives Matter. There have been past periods of reflection in corporate America on race, but the outpouring of response this time indicates a different, and possibly more sustainable, movement.
Even in such a tumultuous period, the beauty industry has stood out, both for its cultural moment and its halting response. Run largely by white executives, cosmetics companies preside over a vital facet of culture: ideal female beauty. For decades, big brands have told shoppers what’s beautiful and what’s not, through ads and print magazine spreads often lacking a diverse set of models. Shades of so-called “nude” makeup are often only nude for white customers. There are few black-owned brands stocked by major retailers.
The industry has made some progress in recent years, following efforts by “inclusive beauty” labels with broad product and colour ranges. It was considered groundbreaking in 2017 for a smaller brand like Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty to release foundation in 40 shades, and brands have slowly worked to add more hues to make their products accessible to a more diverse set of customers.
But beauty brands have historically enabled a “consistent erasure of people of colour,” said Sami Schalk, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Because black folks have not been in power, the beauty industry has always marginalized us and told us that our bodies and hair is not okay and needs to be changed.”
The beauty industry has always marginalized us and told us that our bodies and hair is not okay and needs to be changed.
The most significant promise of change came from Estée Lauder, and only after an internal revolt from employees. More than 100 workers last week criticized the company’s response to the protests and called for the removal of Ronald Lauder, a family heir and mega-donor for President Donald Trump, from the board of directors. In an email to William Lauder, executive chairman of Estée Lauder and grandson of the founders, they said Ronald’s role damaged the company’s relationship with the black community.
Within days, Estée Lauder promised to boost black hiring, with a goal of reaching population parity for black employees across the organization within five years. It will double entry-level hires from historically black colleges and universities. The company also said it would double what it buys from black-owned businesses and raised Estée Lauder’s donations to racial equality organizations from $1 million to $10 million.“In these last weeks, we were reminded that as a company we are stronger for having employees who stand up to share their thoughts, ideas and opinions –- no matter how difficult,” William Lauder and CEO Fabrizio Freda wrote in an internal memo sent Monday night.
Ronald Lauder is remaining on the board, however, and diversity at the board of directors level in the beauty industry remains low. About 13 percent of board seats at 10 of the leading North American and European beauty companies are occupied by people of colour. That’s below the 16 percent average at the largest U.S. companies, according to a 2019 study from Deloitte. No cosmetics business is among the three dozen corporations the firm cited as having the most diverse boards.
Even as beauty companies present racial breakdowns of their workforces, they’ve been slow to put down cash behind racial equality causes since the protests began. Corporations across all industries have vowed to pump more than $1.1 billion into organizations like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter. Cosmetics businesses have publicly pledged about $20 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
It’s not like this is just a request from black people. This is a request from everyone.
The pressure for change has spread to retailers who carry cosmetics. Walmart Inc., America’s biggest retailer, said it would no longer put black hair care and beauty products inside locked cases for fear of theft while placing the other items freely on shelves. After shopper complaints this week, Walmart acknowledged the practice occurred at about a dozen stores. CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens said they would halt the same policy at its drug stores.
Sephora, the specialty beauty retailer owned by LVMH, became the first company to sign on to a pledge to buy 15% of its inventory from black-owned businesses. Aurora James, a Canadian fashion designer who started an organization called the 15 Percent Pledge, said Sephora’s decision to get involved puts the spotlight on everyone else.
“We’re in communication with some of them, but the ones that we haven’t heard from, their silence is of course deafening,” said James, whose accompanying petition has more than 100,000 signatures. “It’s not like this is just a request from black people. This is a request from everyone.”
By: Kim Bhasin and Gerald Porter Jr.