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Black History Month: Research Finds Room for DE&I Improvement as Brands Step Up Support

An overdue period of awakening has overtaken the fashion industry. Following calls for social justice across the country, brands have begun to examine their own roles in perpetuating practices that have led to a longstanding lack of diversity and representation across the sector.

But these movements are in their infancy, a new report says. While brands are taking the preliminary steps to promote equality, employees believe there is considerable work to be done.

A McKinsey study commissioned by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and PVH Corp. showed that while the majority (60 percent) of fashion industry employees believes their companies have engaged in efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), employees of color insist they’re falling short.

While 77 percent of surveyed white employees said their fashion industry employer was “doing what it takes” to improve DEI, 20 percent fewer Black employees said the same, suggesting that while both groups observed significant action, they were not aligned on how much progress was being made. What’s more, 62 percent of white staff said they believe opportunities go to the most deserving employees, and just 47 percent of Black respondents agreed, underscoring the idea that ensuring inclusion doesn’t end with hiring. One-quarter of employees of color said they felt they were judged by different performance standards than their white counterparts, and 16 percent said they felt they were less likely to be promoted to first-level manager roles because of their race.

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A demographic breakdown of 10 leading American fashion and apparel companies showed that the only three Black C-Suite-level employees were chief diversity officers who were part of human resources departments, not tasked with leading business functions. Amid public proclamations from brands insisting they promote Black leadership, this sparse showing at the top has raised questions about whether their actions are actually leading to more representation in decision-making roles, the report said. In January, Nordstrom reiterated its commitment to increase diversity throughout “all corporate and leadership positions to better reflect the North American population,” adding that the initiative would see at least 50 percent more Black and Latinx employees in mid and senior leadership positions by 2025. It also aims to drive $500 million in sales through brands “owned,” “operated,” or “designed” by Black and Latinx individuals.

Less than 44 percent of employees believe that the actions their companies are taking now to advance DEI will result in permanent change, however, and the current state of affairs at American fashion brands paints an inauspicious picture for incoming candidates. Half of all employees surveyed in the report said a career in the industry isn’t equally accessible to all candidates, and 68 percent of Black employees said they felt fewer opportunities were available to them.

Old Navy and Macy’s step up

In the wake of these revelations, the onset of Black History Month has sparked a number of new campaigns from retailers looking to elevate Black-owned brands and employees, often while lending support to community-boosting nonprofits. Last week, Old Navy announced the launch of Project WE, a collection of graphic T-shirts designed by a curated group of diverse artists celebrating nationally recognized holidays from Black History Month to International Women’s Day, with $1 million in proceeds committed to Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Meanwhile, Macy’s announced plans to launch 11 new Black-owned beauty brands in its stores throughout the month of February, as a part of its participation in the 15 Percent Pledge. The initiative was conceptualized by fashion designer Aurora James, who urged retailers to reserve 15 percent of their shelf space for products made by Black brands and artisans to reflect the demographics of the U.S. consumer base. The department store chain is also encouraging shoppers to donate to Black Girls Code and the United Negro College Fund by rounding up to the nearest dollar on their purchases.

“As we honor Black culture and Black Brilliance, we are intensifying our commitment to the growth and advancement of Black-owned businesses, creators, change-makers, and young talent,” Shawn Outler, Macy’s chief diversity officer, said in a statement.

Target promotes Black entrepreneurs, Bombas taps the ‘hive’

Target has opted to spotlight Black entrepreneurs and businesses through a curated lookbook of more than 100 products across categories like apparel, beauty and home. The big-box chain announced Monday that it would also showcase the artistic work of three students from historically black colleges and universities in this assortment, with their designs featured on a capsule of T-shirts and hoodies. The same day, New York-based technical sock brand Bombas launched a new line dubbed the Black Hive Collection, designed and brought to market by the company’s employees of color, with plans to donate $100,000 to four nonprofits chosen by the internal collective.

Will ‘wokeness’ wane?

While February often brings about inspirational collections and opportunities for exposure, CFDA and PVH’s research indicated that Black fashion students waiting to enter the market are feeling less than hopeful about their futures in the industry. Many expressed a belief that brands are capitalizing on a potentially fleeting trend toward wokeness because of the current cultural climate, and said they were skeptical about entering the fashion sector when its motivation to include them could potentially fade later on.

Fashion schools play a “critical role” in creating a pipeline into the industry—but analysis of six top U.S. institutions showed missed opportunities for representation, the research showed. Less than 10 percent of the 2020 undergraduate student body at these colleges is Black, and nearly two-fifths of Black respondents also reported feeling “not at all equipped” for their first job search upon completing their studies.

Neiman supports ‘Black futures,’ Walmart coughs up $14.3 million

A number of brands and retail organizations appear to have cottoned on to the importance of promoting education, mentorship and funding as Black would-be designers and entrepreneurs take their first steps into an intimidating landscape. On Monday, Neiman Marcus announced a campaign dubbed “Celebrating Black History by Supporting Black Futures,” which aims to invest $1 million over a three-year period in non-profit groups that support “young students, college students, pre-professionals, young professionals, and professionals” in Black communities across the U.S.

Neiman Marcus Group is investing in a strong foundation of educational support, mentoring, and leadership skills, which are all crucial to the success of our communities,” Amber Seikaly, vice president and chief communications officer for the luxury retailer, said in a statement. “We have a commitment to serving communities across the U.S., and we’re thrilled to continue supporting organizations that build brighter futures.”

Meanwhile, on Feb. 1, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation announced the first $14.3 million in grants distributed under a June 2020 commitment to support racial equality via $500 million in funding. The 16 beneficiaries span health, education and cross-sector groups, including the Association of Black Foundation Executives, which will use $1 million from Walmart and its philanthropic arms to bolster its “capacity to coordinate people, information, investments and practices that advance racial equity.”

Hollister and Citi Trends open their wallets

In addition to partnering with teens and brand associates to launch a Black History Month-themed capsule of T-shirts and hoodies, Abercrombie & Fitch Co.-owned teen brand Hollister has also committed to donating $70,000—the net proceeds the company would have made on the collection—to The Academy Group, which provides education and mentorship for young people in underserved communities across the country. Value-priced fashion retailer Citi Trends, based in Savannah, Ga., chose to fund entrepreneurs with existing enterprises as it touted the kickoff of its Black History Makers program this week. Ten Black entrepreneurs who have made an impact on their communities will be awarded $5,000 grants to build out their businesses. CEO David Makuen said Citi Trends wanted to “deliver on our promise to the community that we have served proudly for years” by “celebrating Black business owners.”

“The only thing that prevents a brilliant idea from becoming a success story is the opportunity,” he said, “so I am thrilled to put our words into action by making existing and aspiring Black entrepreneurs’ dreams a reality.”

Bunker Labs tackles capital

Bunker Labs, a nonprofit run by a national network of veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs, is also striving to level the playing field for Black businesses in need of capital. The organization has not only curated a list of Black makers within its cohort of veteran entrepreneurs, but called for equitable access to lines of credit to help bolster their businesses. It cited reporting from The Washington Post showing that while Black business owners tend to apply for credit at a rate of 10 percentage points higher than their white counterparts, they are 19 percent less likely to be approved for financing.

“We call on the community to support Black veteran entrepreneurs by extending lines of credit and creating equitable access to capital,” said Mike Steadman, a member of the Bunker Labs branding team. Steadman urged the broader veteran community to not only purchase from Black veteran-owned businesses, but also to invest in these operations formally or award them contracts for goods and services.

“The economic devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has decimated Black-owned businesses all across the country,” Steadman added. “As we recognize the contributions of Black Americans this month, it’s important that we not only celebrate the past, but also acknowledge the present, and look towards the future.”

Smaller is better?

While CFDA and PVH’s research revealed mixed reviews from Black employees on their employers’ efforts to promote DEI, most respondents said they believe that small and medium-size brands offer the best environments for success. The majority (68 percent) of Black employees at small companies reported that they believe hiring at their company is based on fair and objective criteria, while over half (55 percent) said the same about their medium-size employers. That number dropped by more than percent when large companies were assessed by their Black employees.

Their pledges of support may not generate the same splashy headlines as nationwide chains, but small businesses are indeed working to support the Black community and promote their values publicly this February. Women’s denim and casual clothing brand Etica will donate 10 percent of the month’s proceeds to the NAACP, while luxury silk apparel and accessories company Lilysilk will divert 5 percent of each sale to Black Lives Matter through Feb. 22. Activewear brand Mono B has decided to give 10 percent of sales to GirlTrek to support health and self-care for Black women, while newly launched New York men’s and women’s athleisure and suiting company Bourbon Summer Cartoon Crisis will donate 100 percent of its profits from the Black History Month to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the country’s largest organization representing the Black college community.