The events of the past two weeks have brought about moments of self-reflection from brands and retailers across the globe. But some are still stumbling—and occasionally falling face first—into problems of their own making.
On Tuesday, Amazon pulled a children’s T-shirt from its U.S. site that appeared to depict disgraced former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, an African-American man who died in police custody. Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder, and Floyd has become the face of a swelling national movement calling for racial equality, social justice and an end to police brutality.
According to BBC News, the shirt was listed by one of the site’s third-party sellers for $14.99, alongside other merchandise that targeted Black Lives Matter supporters. In a statement to the outlet, Amazon said the account in question was being investigated and the item had been removed from the platform.
The blunder comes just days after the company announced on its blog that it would be donating $10 million to groups focused on “combating systemic racism.”
“We stand in solidarity with our Black employees, customers, and partners, and are committed to helping build a country and a world where everyone can live with dignity and free from fear,” Amazon wrote.
In the wake of protests that have mobilized towns and cities across the U.S., brands have faced a long-overdue reckoning. Adidas’ dirty laundry was aired by disillusioned employees last week after the brand came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement publicly, but failed to address a pervasive dearth of diversity within its own ranks. Athletic wear titan Nike was called out for an opportunistic marketing ploy that offered little in the realm of substance—or solutions—to systemic racism.
The events of recent weeks have put brand conduct under an especially powerful microscope, accelerating a trend toward swift retribution for bad behavior and ignorant decision making.
In February 2019, pop icon Katy Perry was forced by public outcry to remove a pair of slip-on loafers and a pair of block heels from her footwear collection, both of which bore motifs that resembled blackface. Luxury label Gucci came under fire from shoppers around the same time for releasing an $890 “balaclava” polo neck sweater that also looked like blackface.
And Tuesday’s revelation was far from Amazon’s first brush with cultural insensitivity on its platform.
The online marketplace removed apparel items from its U.K. site in August that featured a notorious and gruesome Holocaust photo. Just months later, holiday shoppers stumbled upon Christmas ornaments emblazoned with images of a Nazi concentration camp.
The online giant is home to hundreds of thousands of third-party sellers—a contingent responsible for 58 percent of Amazon’s overall sales. While it undoubtedly capitalizes on its ever-growing army of moneymakers, some have questioned whether Amazon has lost control of its platform due to its reliance on independent vendors.
Bad actors have proliferated across the site, selling goods that violate the e-tailer’s terms of service, from offensive products to outright counterfeits. With over 600 million products available across the marketplace, overseeing the authenticity and origins of those products has become nearly impossible, Scott Ohsman of Buybox Experts told Sourcing Journal last year.
But in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and a heavy consumer reliance on e-commerce channels, Amazon has staffed up to meet growing demand. The company hired 100,000 full- and part-time workers across its fulfillment centers and delivery network, and is hiring an additional 75,000 employees to help service broader consumer needs.
While the specific roles of the new hires have not been disclosed, it’s likely that some quotient will be tasked with helping facilitate and streamline third-party seller operations—especially as the vendor base continues to grow.