NEW YORK, United States — Last Tuesday, lifestyle brand Ban.do, best known for its curated selection of clothing and accessories, posted a black square to its Instagram account, joining countless other companies and individuals in a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But when it said it was pausing its social media content to “listen, learn, and amplify Black voices,” it probably did not expect so many of its own employees would be doing the talking.
Gabriella Sanchez, who worked in e-commerce marketing and graphic design between 2014 and 2016, took to her own Instagram to detail what she described as a “toxic culture” riddled with racist behaviour and other forms of discrimination, which she said stemmed from founder Jen Gotch. Other former employees followed with similar accounts. An anonymous Instagram feed began collecting their stories “in hope for continued transparency [and] accountability.”
Ban.do issued a statement acknowledging it could do better: “It is apparent that we have work to do to accurately reflect the diversity and values of our Ban.do community and employees.” Gotch, who over the years has built a personal brand and online persona rooted in mental health advocacy, apologised on Instagram before stepping down from her position as chief creative officer and taking a leave of absence. Ban.Do did not respond to a BoF request for comment.
“When I originally posted, I was nervous about getting hit with some kind of lawsuit,” said Sanchez. “I’m not too worried about that [now] ... so many people have come forward.”
She is not the only one finally telling her story. This most recent civil rights movement, which has prompted protests in cities across the world, has emboldened entry- and mid-level fashion industry employees to speak out publicly against their employers’ racism in unprecedented numbers. Fashion brands Reformation and Zimmermann have been accused of hypocrisy by current and former employees, as have media companies like Refinery29 and Condé Nast.
In each case, accusations — often accompanied by photos, emails and other evidence — were quickly amplified on social media. The list of high-ranking editors and founders forced out amid the uproar, from Refinery29’s Christene Barberich to Bon Appetit’s Adam Rapoport, grows longer by the day.
The volume and velocity at which these stories are coming to light is making it impossible for business as usual to be a thing.
Employees have spoken out about dysfunctional internal cultures before; the #MeToo movement is one recent example. But it’s rare to see so many companies called out at once, or for the accusations to have such quick results. What’s changed, activists say, is that a critical mass of consumers have become attuned to the mismatch between the values brands claim to share and the reality of their internal culture.
The rise of social media has also realigned the power dynamics of the industry. Brands that used their platforms to cultivate communities of consumers have found the arenas that boosted their success can also quickly undermine it. The reality is that employees are a company's most discerning critics — and consumers that expect brands to live up to the values they hold will listen to what its employees have to say.
“People have just had enough. They are sick of the ... empty words,” said Suki Sandhu, founder and chief executive of Involve, an organisation dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion within businesses.
Callout culture on social media is not a new phenomenon, with fashion brands operating under the close surveillance of more discerning consumers and social media watchdogs like Diet Prada and Estée Laundry for a while now.
It was often current and former employees feeding tips to these sites — usually anonymously, for fear of facing repercussions from employers or difficulty securing other opportunities down the line.
But with protesters marching in the streets, and polls showing a growing number of Americans agreeing that systemic racism is a problem, even entry-level employees feel it is their duty to speak out.
“The collective volume and velocity at which these stories are coming to light is making it impossible for business as usual to be a thing,” said Sofia Booth, a former employee and vice president of audience development of Who What Wear. The fashion media outlet issued several statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting a number of former employees, including Booth, to publicly share experiences at the company that they said contradicted its external statements.
It was a similar story with the #MeToo movement, when a flurry of individuals publicly voiced their own experiences of sexual misconduct in the workplace, holding those responsible to account.
The #MeToo movement also kickstarted a wider conversation around what was acceptable — and not acceptable — workplace behaviour, with companies everywhere coming under scrutiny for tolerance of sexual misconduct and gender equality.
The collective disillusionment that we have felt and experienced in our careers has met this tipping point.
Booth said one reason she left Who What Wear was because she wasn’t given the same opportunities as her white colleagues, including one-on-one meetings with Chief Executive and Co-Founder Katherine Power, despite raising the issue with the company’s human resources department.
“There were executive off-sites in which we were talking about my team’s remit and I was not given a seat at the table to speak on any of those topics,” said Booth. “My white colleagues who are even more junior than me were empowered to have a seat at those conversations.”
Who What Wear did not have additional comment, but in an internal memo to employees shared with BoF, Power noted, “The responses we received – and the constructive criticism that they contained – were sometimes surprising, often painful, and yet deeply needed. Good intentions are important, but actions are what truly matters.”
Former employees from Vogue have also stepped forward on social media, despite fears of legal reprisal, in order to share their experiences. They've called out both the magazine and its parent company, Condé Nast, for pay disparity and an internal work culture that does not support the career development of people of colour.
"We are prioritising and addressing our teams’ desires to foster a more open and inclusive workplace culture with new leadership and are committed to making sure that happens," Condé Nast said in a statement to BoF. "Consistent with that, we go to great lengths to ensure that employees are paid fairly, in accordance with their roles and experience, across the entire company. It’s simply not true to say that any employee is not paid for their work. "
The company added that it is working on a diversity and inclusion report along with a pay equity analysis that will be circulated with all employees by the end of the year.
I knew that post wasn’t genuine at all because of my own personal experiences.
For employees who feel that the progress their company is making toward fostering an inclusive workplace culture is too slow, or non-existent, taking the conversation to a public forum where brands are forced to address concerns seems like the only option left.
Plus, social media can escalate rapidly. Desirée Celestin, who interned with Zimmermann for a month in 2019, has accused the brand of covering up racial discrimination and prejudice. Her comment quickly rose to the top of a brand Instagram post, garnering over 2,500 likes, and was eventually reposted on Diet Prada along with a series of other accusations, pushing the company to issue a series of commitments to various organisations and pledges to do better internally.
Celestin said she initially feared speaking up, but after the company posted a Black Lives Matter black box on Blackout Tuesday, felt she had to say something.
“I knew that post wasn’t genuine at all because of my own personal experiences,” said Celestin. She says the company has reached out, but she isn’t interested in talking. “I also don’t want to be a prop for a company to say, ‘Hey, look we talked to her, we’re doing something.’”
In a statement sent to BoF, similar to the one it posted on Instagram, the company stated that “must confront instances of unacceptable behaviour in our company and any businesses practices that contribute to the broader problem of systemic racism in society.”
It’s too early to tell whether this recent surge of employee activism leads to real change. Some senior leaders have stepped down, but it remains to be seen if their companies will significantly alter hiring practices and take steps to improve their internal cultures. In the case of #MeToo, steps taken have been halting, while blacklisted photographers accused of sexual misconduct are already back at work.
So far, progress on the diversity and inclusion front has been slow, said Ben Barry, chair of fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“I would love to say that fashion’s workplace culture is becoming more inclusive, but that’s not the reality,” he said, noting how many fashion workforces are largely white, especially at senior decision-making levels. “Some initiatives exist around discrimination in hiring practices, but its effectiveness is questionable,” with few brands providing staff with training or education on issues of bias, racism and privilege, he added.
Of course, employees that speak out also risk compromising future opportunities.
“I haven’t slept in two days because I’m afraid of legal retaliation,” said Booth. “[But] I think the collective heartbreak, the collective disillusionment that we have felt and experienced in our careers has met this tipping point.”
Others hope the industry will change for the better, and that companies will be more proactive in the future.
“Anyone that blacklists me because I spoke about something someone else did... I wouldn’t want to work for them anyway,” said Celestin. “I’ve made it very clear that there are certain things I’m not going to accept from companies.”
At the end of the day, if fashion brands want to continue to attract the best talent, making meaningful culture change will be essential, and they’ll have to put in the hard work, said Involve’s Sandhu.
“We’re in a world generally where people want purpose, and they want values and they want honesty and they want integrity and they want transparency,” he said. “Enough of the words; people need more deeds. [Companies need to] take action.”