The black population is exhausted—whether from fighting in recent protests, fighting against long-standing systemic oppression or fighting to be heard. In many cases, it’s all of the above.
As a black woman, the Black Lives Matter email messages now flooding my inbox daily are more annoying than empowering. When the statements supporting the movement and disavowing racism are, more often than not, crafted by brands’ white CEOs, reviewed by their white colleagues and blessed by a white HR or PR department, you will not get the message right. You will not know how your staff or consumers want to be spoken to or what they want to hear you saying. Black social media squares and donations to causes for people of color aren’t enough.
And your overnight activism isn’t fooling anyone into thinking you’ve always been fighting for these rights, or against these injustices, or that you’ve put your money where your platitudes are and taken action to mix the makeup of your executive staff. To the brands that aren’t speaking on the issue at all, your silence isn’t the safe space you may believe it to be. Your silence is loud, and the consumers who have increasingly shown that they’ll spend their disposable income with businesses that are about something—will remember it. Yes, it’s treacherous territory no matter how you approach it, and yes, in many cases, you can’t win.
So what, then, should you do?
Try harder. Try more often.
Try relentlessly until you can confidently say everyone has a seat at the table. It’s not enough to have a smattering of low-rung, or middle-management or even executive employees who are black if, when you close the doors to your boardroom, every decision maker left at the table is white. And it’s not enough to pull any handy black staff into those boardrooms in “advisory” roles to provide just enough insight for you to pat yourselves on the back and consider your efforts diverse. Boards of directors can’t be built on nepotism, clout and number of shares alone. It’s not enough not to make space for new and necessary voices—of all colors, creeds, races, genders, ages, sexual orientations and religious affiliations—to be heard. Most important, these varied voices have talent to bring to the table, too.
Hiring one diversity inclusion officer to sit on the fringes and keep you from faux pas isn’t entirely dissimilar to how the industry has approached compliance or sustainability—like a box to tick. There’s a reason why, when a brand has built its entire ethos on sustainability, going so far as to change all of its inputs to organic or recycled, having corporate teams spend time pulling plastic out of oceans, and pushing accords fighting climate change in front of the G7, its actions speak louder than its words. There’s a reason why when a brand has built its entire ethos on inclusion and representation, going so far as to support education programs to train multicultural youth and then hire them, and making sure non-white employees make their way into leadership roles, and pushing reform for racial bias, its actions speak louder than its words.
On the contrary, brands that cut corners or slap ‘sustainable’ or ‘diverse’ labels onto product or processes that are anything but, do not ring authentic. And when calls for greater transparency—which will now undoubtedly extend to hiring practices and representation—rise among consumers, exposure of the reality could, and should, cancel brands, leaving no room for recovery. Diversity cannot be another box for fashion to tick.
Whichever side of the aisle you stand on when it comes to political, social or racial issues, this is about the viability—the sustainability—of your business.
The only reason brands get caught red-handed with blackface sweaters on their shelves or monkey T-shirts on their young black models, is because there wasn’t a single black person in a decision-making role along the way to be the face-saving Samaritan to say, ‘hey, this is a terrible idea and here’s why.’ Or who never actually had to utter those words because their mere presence in the room is enough to make their colleagues give things a second thought. The only reason brands can completely bail on their less-privileged, less-white supply-chain supporters before giving adequate thought to what that would mean for them, is because there are not enough voices from other underserved communities to say, ‘hey, this is a terrible idea and here’s why.’
So look at your staff. Make sure your decision makers have different kinds of faces. But also, look at your supply chain. The less-privileged population that makes the products on your shelves needs representation, too. Continuing to exploit them at all and any cost for your own gain is its own form of racism and, in fashion, it’s systemic. It’s the basis on which low-cost fashion was built and the reason supply chains have landed in low-cost countries where underrepresented populations are forced to work for exceptionally low pay. Factory workers, who are also part of your organization, must be given as much consideration as the white male majority shareholder who sits on your board of directors.
The backlash for these unacceptable errs in the new world we’re now entering, may not be as delicate as a few days of bad press that eventually, but quickly, gets forgotten.
Reacting won’t curry you any favor when your role, your reach, your influence should demand more than that. Reacting will get you the same collective eye roll many in the black community gave NFL commissioner Roger Goodell when he said the very thing that would have kept Colin Kaepernick on the field, when he (at least publicly) took the stand against racism the former football player was calling for by taking a knee four years ago. That’s not the place fashion brands want to be. That’s the place that will have your day-late statements remembered for the wrong reasons. That’s the place that will force your words into harsh light, and juxtapose them against your actions. Or inactions.
Diversity also means dollars if that’s an easier concept to digest. It means better, smarter, more innovative products when ideas aren’t coming solely from a singular demographic. It means better messaging to promote that product when multicultural team members can weigh in on what works for the varied audiences that will undoubtedly, and increasingly, make up your target market. It means more balanced, and representative, decision making. It means better loyalty—both from staff and shoppers—who will be able to see the work you’ve put in on inclusion and not just the empty emails you’ve sent expressing support for the idea of it. It means your brand stands for more than just padding the pockets of the same group that has always held the power.
That’s what the new world will buy into.