2020 has emerged as one of the most turbulent cultural landscapes in recent history. Protests of racism, social injustice and police brutality, spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, have launched the U.S. into a state of social upheaval that has sent ripples through the international community.
The charged atmosphere has forced a reckoning not just in the world of politics, but also at the business level. Retail brands have been prompted by employees and consumers to answer for policies and actions that have promoted or protected institutionalized racism.
Most brands have answered the call with as much grace as they could muster. They’ve donated funds to groups promoting racial equality, pledged to prioritize diversity in their hiring practices, and apologized for past mistakes.
But even amid the heightened tensions, some companies are still getting it deeply, shockingly wrong.
This week, H&M Group was forced to apologize for an incident involving its Paris, Stockholm and Los Angeles-based label, & Other Stories, which admitted to having used a racial slur in a product line sheet viewed by employees last month.
The brand’s product team uploaded the document, which depicts forthcoming styles, to its internal overview system. The line sheet included a design for a beanie hat bearing the n-word as a part of its name.
H&M Group issued an apology Wednesday, denouncing the incident as “totally unacceptable” and stating that it “should have never happened.” While H&M Group did not comment on its processes for naming products, or how such an action evaded detection by management, the company called the use of the slur a “serious breach of our policies” that “goes against everything we stand for.”
The company went on to insist that it takes the use of racially offensive language extremely seriously, adding that while internal and external investigations are still underway, the team and managers responsible for that area of the business have been suspended. The product has also been dropped from the seasonal collection.
The company has implemented training on conscious and unconscious bias for thousands of employees—a process that will now become mandatory across the board. H&M Group has promised that by the end of the year, management teams in major markets will publish their specific targets and timetables for improving representation. By the end of 2021, the company has committed to announcing its worldwide plans to promote inclusion in its operations.
An advisory council made up of external, third-party business executives from diverse backgrounds will advise the Swedish fashion giant on its new direction, while a peer advisory council will work directly with CEO Helena Helmersson, the head of inclusion and diversity, and the management team at large.
Despite its after-the-fact commitments to do better, consumers must still contend with the reality that the popular fast-fashion firm’s current cultural atmosphere allowed such a transgression to occur in the first place.
H&M Group acknowledged that “simply taking action on one occasion is not enough,” adding that it recognizes that it still has “challenges with the diversity” of some of its own teams. “We must improve representation and continue to educate ourselves if we are going to reflect and celebrate the diverse customers and communities we serve,” it said in a statement.
Though the firm is based in Stockholm, H&M Group only lists full diversity data for its U.S. operations—which include 17,000 employees in 48 states and Puerto Rico—on its website.
H&M USA’s executive management team, which includes the heads of all stateside functions, is 63 percent white, 6 percent Black or African American, 6 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 6 percent persons of two or more races.
Those numbers stand in contrast to H&M USA’s overall employee breakdown, which includes staff in office roles as well as retail employees. The firm’s American operations are 26 percent white, 26 percent Black or African American, 34 percent Hispanic or latino, 7 percent Asian, 1 percent native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and 0.4 percent Native American or Native Alaskan.
If the company’s American consumer base mirrors the diversity of its overall staff—which is nearly evenly split between Black, white and Hispanic or latino employees—H&M USA has substantial strides to make in reflecting its shoppers’ interests through the makeup of its leadership.
This week, Jeff Bezos’ online giant was forced to address its own racism controversy when Twitter user @DavidLammy, a Black British Labour Party politician serving as a two-decade Member of Parliament for the Tottenham district in North London, took aim at the company over a third-party seller’s shoe listing.
Alongside a screenshot of the offending product description, which characterized a brown men’s dress shoe using the n-word, Lammy tweeted, “Just buying brown brogues tonight leads to this racist micro aggression. Is it 2020 or 1720? Please @amazon take it down.”
The company quickly jumped into action to remove the item from its site, and Lammy tweeted again thanking Amazon for its prompt attention. But he questioned the company’s process for reviewing descriptions and ensuring that hate speech and offensive terms are not posted in the first place.
“This is not the first time,” he wrote.
Indeed, Amazon has come under considerable fire for products made available for sale by its legion of third-party sellers. These missteps call into question the company’s capacity to oversee the quality, veracity and propriety of the products it sells, and its dedication to ensuring their fitness for public consumption.
In early June, as the nation reeled and raged over Floyd’s death at the hands of former police officer Derek Chauvin, Amazon pulled a kids’ T-shirt from its site that depicted the fatal incident in a full-color photo print. The item, listed by one of the site’s third-party sellers for $14.99, was featured alongside other products that targeted the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the time, Amazon said it was investigating the account in question and that the item had been removed from the site. Amazon announced a $10 million donation to groups dedicated to “combating systemic racism” just days before the incident.
In response to an inquiry from Sourcing Journal about the brown-shoe blunder, an Amazon spokesperson said, “All sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who do not will be subject to action including potential removal of their account,” noting that the product in question is no longer available.
A perusal of Amazon’s Seller Central website and its beginner’s guide to selling on the platform reveals little about its standards for products sold by third parties, or the way they are presented to shoppers. A page dedicated to helping sellers craft their product detail pages provides information about image size, description length, keywords and other consumer-facing criteria, but does not address prohibited terms or content.
The Amazon spokesperson did not immediately respond to inquiries about the company’s specific selling guidelines and what it is doing to screen product descriptions.