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Beauty Forced to Confront Racism

Consumers are pressuring the beauty industry to go beyond statements and donations, and ultimately commit to long-term change.

Ready or not, beauty companies are now being forced by consumers to address racism.

Last weekend, as peaceful protests and some riots broke out worldwide, social media swelled with messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd. Beauty companies began sharing messages of solidarity, joining with other industries in breaking corporate America’s usual silence on politically charged matters. Some even pledged donations.

That, however, was soon deemed insufficient by social media users, and the overall conversation quickly deepened. Consumers began pressuring the beauty industry to go beyond a statement or donation to commit to long-term change to reverse the systemic racism in which they believed companies have long played a part.

WWD Beauty Inc reached out to the 10 biggest global beauty companies, plus two major retailers, about how they are rethinking diversity from the inside out. A handful, via e-mail, provided clarity on diversity and anti-racism initiatives moving forward. None of the major beauty corporations asked for telephone interviews provided them.

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The difficulty acquiring statements from these businesses stands in contrast to their forward-facing efforts. Following Fenty Beauty’s revolutionarily inclusive 40-shade foundation launch in 2017, the industry partook in conversations about inclusivity and diversity, with many companies racing to expand their own foundation shade ranges.

Over the past week, companies have publicly shown unwavering support for the Black Lives Matter movement. On Instagram, Estée Lauder and Shiseido posted that they “stand with the black community.” Coty, Sephora and Ulta Beauty posted for #blackouttuesday. P&G posted, “Equality. Justice. Action. Now.”

L’Oréal’s L’Oréal Paris posted “speaking out is worth it” and wrote in the caption that it would  make a “commitment” to the NAACP. The post drew widespread criticism, though, most notably from black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf. She made headlines in 2017 when she was hired as the company’s first transgender model, and later fired after speaking publicly about demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., that year.

The backlash exemplified that the commitment to and conversation around diversity is still fraught.

Beauty companies seem to have figured out diversity from a marketing point of view: casting diverse models to market and sell products to diverse consumers, and posturing publicly behind cultural movements. But on the inside, the majority of executive-level leaders across major beauty businesses are white. (For a breakdown, see: Diversity in Beauty’s C-Suite).

Those types of statistics have prompted Sharon Chuter, a Nigerian-born beauty veteran and the ceo and founder of cosmetics company Uoma Beauty, to start a grassroots campaign to raise awareness around the lack of black employees, especially those in leadership roles, at American corporations. The campaign is called #PullUpOrShutUp.

“Every single brand and every single company has an Equal Opportunity Employment policy,” Chuter told WWD Beauty Inc. “All these brands are now standing in support and donating, meanwhile, within their organizations they don’t actively employ black people. They have no black leaders.”

“We need to move this conversation forward,” she continued. “Every single person cannot push it to be somebody else’s problem. Racism in our society is systemic, it’s been built in everything that we do. This is a great opportunity for every single person to look at their own actions and go, ‘how can I be better,’ as opposed to, ‘we’ve never been part of the problem.’”

The #PullUpOrShutUp campaign launched on Instagram on June 3. It calls for all companies that have shared statements in solidarity with or donations to the Black Lives Matter movement to publicly reveal the percentage of black people they employ and specify the number of black employees in leadership positions. Chuter’s effort also encourages consumers to hold companies accountable and refrain from buying products from companies in question for 72 hours.

Simply complying with equal opportunity employment, which says companies will hire without regard to race, color, sex, age, disability status, etc., is one example of companies ticking off the diversity box, experts said. While many beauty companies also have diversity training efforts, and even heads of diversity, those efforts don’t generally make a difference, said Pamela Newkirk, author of Diversity Inc. and New York University journalism professor.

“It’s much easier to pay lip service to diversity, and even to hire diversity czars, than it is to actually embrace diversity by having a truly diverse workforce,” Newkirk said. “Research shows that the training that’s done in most institutions at best changes attitudes for a couple of hours, and at worse makes things worse by triggering resentment, mostly of white men. So, it’s not helpful.”

Black Lives Matter protest in New York City.
Black Lives Matter protest in New York City. George Chinsee/WWD

“The only thing you can do in the workplace is you can make sure discrimination is not happening, you can make sure you are doing all that you can to encourage diversity and respect for different world views and perspectives, but you cannot teach your employees now how not to be racist in the workplace because by the time they get there, they’re 25, 30, 40-years old. It’s too late, and you’re certainly not going to be able to [do it] in a one-hour diversity training session.”

Newkirk contends that the only thing for companies to do to increase diversity is to go out and hire a diverse workforce.

“People hire who they know. They hire who they’re comfortable with. They hire who their friends recommend. And because of the segregation and because of the homogeneity of many of these workplaces, it’s a self-replicating environment,” Newkirk said. “The only way to break that is to expand the networks that institutions tap into when they are hiring to tap into professional organizations of color. It’s not that difficult. We live in a Google universe where anything you want you can find. Yet when it comes to diversity, all of a sudden people pretend they don’t know how to do it.”

Experts cautioned against vocalizing support without internal company actions to give credence to a public position.

“In a day when authenticity counts and ceo credibility is low, faking it is a mistake,” said Erik Gordon, professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “Companies need to be careful to avoid the ditches at both sides of a narrow road. They can’t be seen as indifferent to the problems of race, but they don’t want to be seen as opportunistically engaging in hollow public relations by taking a public stand if they haven’t done much in the fight against racism.”

Neal Semel, cofounder of Diversity Matters, a diversity and inclusion training consultancy, said that companies must be ready to go deeper than a statement.

“People aren’t stupid … you can’t just do window dressing. That’s probably more harmful than doing nothing at all. You can’t open the door and not be ready for people to walk through,” Semel said. Opening that door requires companies to take a hard look at their culture, he noted.

“Theoretically, the goal is that your organization reflects your community in terms of demographics,” he said.

Procter and Gamble announced Wednesday the establishment of its Take on Race fund with an initial contribution of $5 million to support “organizations that fight for justice, accelerate economic opportunity, enable greater access to education and health care and make our communities equitable.” In a page-and-a-half long document, the company also detailed its various diversity and inclusion efforts, from product development to hiring. “Recent events remind us that despite meaningful work in equality and inclusion for years, there is much more we much do and that our advocacy must be more overt and systemic,” a spokesperson said. 

In a statement to WWD Beauty Inc, Unilever’s Mita Mallick, head of diversity and cross-cultural marketing, said many of the company’s brands — SheaMoisture, Axe, Suave, Seventh Generation, Degree and Vaseline — had pledged more than $1 million to organizations fighting for social justice.

SheaMoisture has invested $100,000 to create a social justice coalition to support activists working to put an end to the continuation of racial injustices. The brand has also introduced “This Has to Stop,” a digital initiative that aims to support communities of color in addressing institutional inequality. Cara Sabin, ceo of SheaMoisture, launched the initiative on May 31 via Instagram Live, where she was joined by journalist Jeff Johnson, political advocate Angela Rye, attorney Tanya Miller, community activist Tiffany Loftin and Dr. Thema Bryant.

Unilever said that it has also done internal training over the past two years for employees to better understand the experiences of America’s many and varied communities.

“We must do more within the Unilever ecosystem to ensure we are helping tackle the root causes of social injustice,” Mallick said. “We will do this by ensuring our workforce better reflects the communities we serve, using our economic power for good by continuing to increase our spend with minority-owned businesses, and by upholding a zero-tolerance policy on intolerance — both among Unilever employees and the suppliers, customers and partners that work with us. We will also add our voice and influence to advocate for fair and safe access to voting this November.”

A Coty spokesperson said in a statement to WWD Beauty Inc that the company was “listening, reflecting and self-examining” in the wake of the country’s racial unrest.

“Of course, we are all affected by what is happening,” said the spokesperson. “We are proud of our corporate social platform We Stand For You, which promises to tackle prejudice and discrimination, including through a multimillion dollar partnership with Global Citizen. Our brands too have shown up, adding their voices of support, donating to organizations like NAACP and Black Lives Matter, and sharing resources with their communities on where to learn more. Internally, we are sharing these messages and more reinforcing Coty’s commitment to inclusion and diversity and making HR leaders, managers and outside counselors available for conversation. Certainly we have more work to do and will continue a serious dialogue at the senior-most levels of our company.”

The Estée Lauder Cos. said in a statement to WWD Beauty Inc that it and its brands will collectively donate more than $1 million to organizations that had not yet been specified by press time. In an e-mail shared with its employees, Estée Lauder addressed the “outrageous acts of racism, bigotry and violence,” and outlined a few of its long-term plans. Those plans include working with its Inclusion and Diversity leadership “to ensure broader access to trainings, such as Unconscious Bias.”

The company said it will “actively fund” organizations focused on bridging “community divides.” It also plans to “assemble a team of internal and external partners, thought leaders and community representatives to help us stay vigilant, and hold us accountable to building and maintaining a long-term, sustainable plan for change.”

A Shiseido spokeswoman said that as a sign of “commitment to the African American community” the company is supporting and matching employee donations to several different organizations. “This month, Shiseido Americas had launched a transversal, employee-led Diversity and Inclusion Group dedicated to, among other initiatives, community outreach, enhanced avenues of communication and creating greater access to career pathways within our organization for African Americans.”

L’Oréal USA did not provide WWD with a statement, but did send out an internal e-mail to employees saying that it “intends to contribute” to change, and put a post on Instagram noting that it had committed more than $500,000 to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and other organizations.

“Right now, we are gathering, talking, connecting, listening and consoling each other … we need to act and do more. As an organization, we humbly acknowledge that we haven’t always gotten it right,” ceo Stéphane Rinderknech wrote in the company-wide email. The business is forming a diversity and inclusion advisory board that will develop a company-wide action plan on anti-racism, reporting to Rinderknech and chaired by senior vice president of diversity and inclusion Angela Guy.

“This difficult moment has reaffirmed our dedication to a path that we have been on for years to ensure that we are a truly inclusive company that represents the rich diversity of our market. We will continue to pursue our Diversity & Inclusion strategy with the same passion and purpose, and we will go deeper to strengthen our connection and support for communities impacted by racism.”

Dave Kimbell, president of Ulta Beauty, said in a statement that Ulta would “support The Equal Justice Initiative efforts to challenge racial and economic injustices,” but did not note the size of the donation. He emphasized the retailer’s “commitment to diversity and inclusion continues with strength in the important areas of training, education, external partnerships, recruiting and development.”

Sephora Americas president and ceo Jean-André Rougeot shared an open letter on Sephora’s company web site, linking to its We Belong to Something Beauty inclusivity campaign.

In a statement provided to WWD Beauty Inc, George-Axelle Broussillon Matschinga, senior director of diversity and inclusion for Sephora U.S., expressed the company’s commitment to “long-term action” and outlined a list of initiatives the company has implemented since the launch of its campaign last year.

On the list are employee resource groups geared toward “lifting the voices of the diverse perspectives that are in Sephora.” She noted one group, SephoraNoir, as a resource group for black employees and allies.