Black History Month has seen fashion and beauty retailers announce everything from anti-bias training for store associates to executive mentorship programmes and shop-in-shops dedicated to Black-owned brands.
The flurry of initiatives could be seen as a belated response to the pressure from campaigns that urged the industry to address systemic racism in the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer. But, more than eight months since those first protests, it remains to be seen whether the Black Lives Matter movement will permanently change fashion.
Though plenty of major brands and retailers have vowed to improve their record on diversity or support Black-owned brands, many of these efforts are still in the planning stages. Real change will come through well-funded, multi-year initiatives with dedicated leaders, said Brandice Daniel, founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row, an organisation that supports underrepresented designers.
“I think the real question will be where are we next year?” Daniel said. “It’s so easy to go back to business as usual.”
Many companies in the industry are still figuring out how they fall short by listening to Black and minority employees in the workplace, identifying gaps in hiring and promotion practices and gathering demographic data.
“Most brands are ... trying to go from zero to 100 in the span of six months,” said Dr. Derrick Gay, a diversity and inclusion strategist. “We measure what’s important to us, and if an organisation doesn’t create an intentional strategy [to advance D&I], then I can say with certainty that they will not realise their objectives.”
Most brands are trying to go from zero to 100 in the span of six months.
This spring, many American multi-brand stores are starting new relationships with Black-owned brands like ready-to-wear line Kimberly Goldson, which arrived at Saks Fifth Avenue in January. Sephora and Ulta, too, are doubling the number of Black-owned brands they each carry by the end of the year.
Target and Nordstrom, among other companies, released more detailed employee demographic information in recent months than they have disclosed in the past, putting a figure on the lack of representation at the leadership level with a commitment to provide updates.
In a survey of more than 1,000 fashion employees conducted by the CFDA and PVH last fall, 59 percent of respondents said their companies had taken action in response to racial injustice. But 40 percent said they were not sure how lasting any changes would be.
Will consumers notice and hold retailers accountable if they take superficial action or back off from ambitious targets promised at the peak of the protests? The answer may lie in shoppers and employees, emboldened to speak out against brands on social media now more than ever, and whose criticism has become a powerful driver for action from fashion brands in recent years.
Supplier and Workforce Diversity
Organisations like Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on multi-brand retailers to spend at least 15 percent of their buying budgets on Black-owned brands, are working to keep the pressure on. That means drawing attention to good corporate actors — but also bad ones.
“The more we shine a light on people who are actively trying to do the right thing in their own way, step by step, even if it’s not perfect … the more apparent it becomes [which businesses are] not doing it,” James said.
Gap Inc. recently signed on because the pledge is advocating for more than a quick fix, said Bahja Johnson, the company’s head of customer belonging. Gap Inc. donated to the pledge and promised to increase recruitment and training programs that target Black professionals.
“Back in June… for us, that was such a moment to really take stock of where we were as a company,” Johnson said. “If we are going to go forward and commit to truly advocating for and advancing Black and brown communities, how do we need to do that in a way that makes long-term systemic change?”
Macy’s, which has also signed onto the pledge, is bringing on new Black-owned brands through its beauty category as well as targeting its supplier support program on minority-owned brands. Sephora plans to double the number of Black-owned brands it sells this year as part of its strategy to reach 15 percent. Rent the Runway promised to apply the pledge to the people it hires for content and marketing. And Madewell, which sells a selection of outside brands and collaborations, also signed on and aims to hit the goal by the end of the year.
But they are still outliers.
Some large retailers haven’t yet disclosed employee demographics or made public promises about supporting Black-owned brands, including Net-a-Porter, Saks Fifth Avenue, Shopbop, Hudson’s Bay, Ssense and Neiman Marcus, though some of them have internal diversity initiatives.
We’ve seen for years that fashion has not done a great job at self-policing.
A representative for Saks Fifth Avenue said the company “set meaningful and aggressive targets internally for onboarding” Black designers. Last month, Hudson’s Bay took the BlackNorth Pledge, a Canadian initiative which includes promising to reach 3.5 percent Black representation in executive and board members by 2025.
Other retailers have set undefined targets, including London-based MatchesFashion. In a report released in November, the online luxury retailer promised to “step up our efforts to achieve greater diversity among the designers we retail on our platform,” and “to work harder to get better representation of different communities at every level of our business.” It reported that 74 percent of its leadership identified as white, with another 5 percent identifying as Asian or Asian British and the rest declining to disclose.
While many retailers have responded by promising to increase the number of Black-owned brands they carry, few retailers disclosed where they currently stand by that metric.
James said that when she and the pledge team did their own audits of how many Black-owned brands retailers sold last summer, none of the businesses topped 3 percent.
Ulta said it will double the number of Black-owned brands it carries this year, a goal that would equal 5 percent “of its total offer.” Last June, Sephora disclosed that it carried seven Black-owned brands out of more than 290 in total.
Gap, Nordstrom, Sephora, Macy’s, Target and Ulta were among those that released new details about their workforce demographics in recent months, with promises to provide updates at least once a year. At Gap, 4 percent of employees at its headquarters identify as Black, a figure it pledged to double by 2025. Sephora disclosed that as of December, 7 percent of leadership in US stores, distribution centres and corporate offices are Black or African American, while 41 percent identify as people of colour.
But releasing employee demographics is not standard practice in the industry, and few executive roles are filled by nonwhite people. According to a recent report from the CFDA and PVH, only 17 percent of executive positions are occupied by Black or indigenous people or people of colour.
Of the retailers that released information about the number of Black leaders in the company, Ulta had the highest ranking, with 13 percent of its executive team leaders identifying as Black.
Accountability and Investment
Some diversity and inclusion experts recommend companies seek outside partners to audit their progress on complicated goals where there is a history of superficial action, like diversity initiatives.
“We’ve seen for years that fashion has not done a great job at self-policing,” said James. “Even if you do get your numbers up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been the best partner in the path of doing that.”
Brands that are open about their efforts and goals also provide another layer of accountability by publishing it, said Gay. “I can go to their websites and see it,” he said.
Shopbop is working with The Black in Fashion Council, the professional advocacy organisation Lindsday People Wagner and Sandrine Charles founded last year, which plans to “score” companies on their progress.
Several retailers, including Holt Renfrew and Ulta, have made their own commitments that will not be monitored by an outside organisation. In some cases, they set a lower bar for which brands count toward their target. James’s initiative focuses only on brands that are at least 51-percent owned by a Black person.
Nordstrom, which has said it plans to work with the pledge, set a goal of selling $500 million worth of products from brands owned, operated or founded by Black or Latino people by 2025.
If companies do not allocate sufficient funds or fail to set up internal systems that support and advocate for new diversity initiatives, they risk achieving more than a seasonal marketing campaign — and open themselves to potentially great scrutiny in the future.
Ulta put a dollar amount on its initiatives, promising that it will spend more than $25 million on its different diversity programs in 2021, which include $20 million to advertise with media outlets that target “multicultural” audiences in 2021 and more than $4 million to market Black-owned brands.
Diversity experts also recommend that businesses set up incentives around reaching goals, like executive bonuses. None of the aforementioned retailers and brands have announced any incentives, but Sephora said performance on diversity and inclusion goals will be part of manager performance reviews going forward.
Ultimately, the more fashion and beauty retailers see these initiatives as beneficial to their bottom line, the more successful their efforts are likely to become.
Gay described it as a combination of external and internal accountability.
“Brands will have better market share, and resonate with a broader consumer base — all of those things have to be embedded into the ‘why,’” he said of diversity initiatives. “Otherwise, the efforts will be performative, fizzle out, or result in a meaningless donation.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 8 February 2021. A previous version misstated that Hudson’s Bay signed the BlackNorth Pledge last summer. The company signed it last month.