Brands across the nation are taking a stand for social justice following weeks of protests and conversations about racial equality.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the movement that has coalesced around it, companies are attempting, sometimes less than ably, to align themselves with the cause.
Fashion designer Aurora James spurred a viral movement with an Instagram post on May 29, asking brands like Target, Walmart, Saks Fifth Avenue, Net-a-Porter and others to sell more products made by black creators.
“I am asking you to commit to buying 15 percent of your products from Black-owned businesses,” she wrote, adding that many companies rely on black communities, consumers and audiences for patronage and brand-building.
“We represent 15 percent of the population and we need to represent 15 percent of your shelf space,” she said.
The initiative spurred its own Instagram account, @15percentpledge, which has attracted more than 42,000 followers. Sephora quickly committed to honor the pledge, and companies like Ban.do, Rent the Runway, Violet Grey, Loho Bride, Threads, WeWoreWhat, MatchesFashion and more have agreed to publish annual breakdowns of the designers they support, beginning this August.
On June 3, Uoma Beauty CEO Sharon Chuter launched the “Pull Up or Shut Up” campaign on Instagram, urging brands to publicize the overall demographics of their organizations, including how many black people are employed in roles ranging from leadership to store level employees, board members and customer service associates.
The @PullUpforChange Instagram account has amassed 104,000 followers this month, and brands like Levi’s, Amazon, Rent the Runway, Toms, Nike, Everlane, Reformation and others have all disclosed their stats.
Some brands and retailers have offered not just pledges of support, but mea culpas for bad behavior.
Perhaps most notably, Reformation founder and CEO Yael Aflalo stepped down from her post on June 12, following a social media missive beginning with the bold statement, “I’ve Failed.”
Aflalo went on to address allegations of racism that have been levied against her in recent years, apologizing for the brand’s lack of inclusivity in hiring, messaging and visual representation, along with assertions that she avoided black colleagues in the past.
“Please know that for me this was not about the color of your skin, it’s about my shortcomings as a person,” she said.
Others also acknowledged their shortcomings while committing to future change. “To be transparent, we know from feedback received that we must do better,” H&M-owned COS wrote in a statement on Instagram, which outlined the company’s long-term plan “to make our brand more inclusive and diverse for our customers, colleagues and community.”
Amid widely publicized outcry from its employees across the globe, Adidas offered an apology for its issues with diversity along with a plan to donate to causes championing racial equality and a promise to revamp its hiring practices.
“For most of you, this message is too little, too late,” the company wrote in an Instagram post on June 10. “We’ve celebrated athletes and artists in the Black community and used their image to define ourselves culturally as a brand, but missed the message in reflecting such little representation within our walls.”
The company pledged that 30 percent of all new jobs would be filled by black and Latino candidates moving forward.
Across the industry, brands are developing boards and committees focused on promoting diversity and inclusion. They are also committing to bringing in or promoting black employees to leadership positions, collaborating with black designers, models and brands, and implementing training and workshops devoted to addressing racism.
In addition to committing to taking these steps, Nike CEO John Donahoe announced last week that Juneteenth, the June 19 anniversary of the day that Texan slaves received the news from Union soldiers that they were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, would become a paid holiday for all employees going forward.
Canadian women’s wear brand Aritzia allocated $1 million to fund a new diversity and inclusion training program, while Bay Area intimates label ThirdLove announced Wednesday that it would launch “The TL Effect,” a program to support startups run by female entrepreneurs of color.
The TL Effect will seek to stimulate the growth of these brands through monetary grants and fundraising aid, dedicating ThirdLove office space to their operations, raising brand awareness through ThirdLove’s social channels, and enabling mentorship from ThirdLove employees.
“Combined with enhanced focus on our internal diversity and inclusion initiatives, the TL Effect will create a meaningful way to concretely contribute to the community, that will also allow us to listen and learn from these founders’ experiences and points of view, in hopes that it will ultimately spark change at ThirdLove and beyond,” co-founding CEO Heidi Zak said in a statement.
Sledge Smith, advisory board member at size-inclusive DTC bridal brand Ella & Oak, says companies should listen, learn and use the tools at their disposal to become effective allies.
Brands can find solutions to their problems with inclusivity and engaging black voices the same way they would address other issues—through examining data, Smith said. “I want them to think about solutions to execute based on metrics and modeling, as they would in any other areas of their business,” he added.
Roben Allong, CEO of market research firm Lightbeam Communications, agreed that because brands’ No. 1 priority is to grow their audiences, they have to do more to take the black consumer’s perspective into account.
“Subcultures all have nuanced identities that you have to uncover,” she said, adding that technology allows brands to uncover data that tells them more about the shoppers who are interested in them. They just have to do their homework, she said, and create a resonant, inclusive platform through which to connect.
“Marketing and communications need to become more sensitive” to the issues and tastes of different groups, Allong added.
G. Kofi Annan, vice president of customer experience and strategy at digital services and content licensing platform Juice, believes some brands are nervous about changing longstanding habits and revamping their approaches to be more inclusive.
“It’s scary to think that what brought you here might not get you to the next step” business-wise, he said. But in order to connect with all consumers—not just an exclusive target demographic—brands must continuously gather “data, inputs and insights.”
“Broaden your scope of how you’re defining the folks that are your customers and how they identify themselves,” he advised.