Designs created by three HBCU students as part of Target’s inaugural HBCU Design Challenge.

While scores of brands have launched initiatives and special merchandise to honor Black History Month, the status of the diversity commitments they made last year may be more telling.

Several companies approached by WWD declined to make an executive available for a phone interview, though others like VF Corp., Tapestry and Target were open to discussing the status of their efforts and future plans. Some spoke of how reliant they are on employees to help shape decisions and strategies tied to improving diversity, as well as listening to consumers and different communities where they operate businesses. Creating viable career opportunities for future generations is another priority for some major corporations.

After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year and the racial justice protests that followed, companies of varying sizes and across all industries vowed to try to improve diversity and transparency surrounding their actions. People who identify as Black or African American comprise 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau, and fashion and apparel companies are trying different strategies to improve representation within their companies and the communities they serve to be more closely aligned with the population breakdown.

What retail is doing

Days after announcing a comprehensive plan on Feb. 11 to enhance racial equity across its brands and outside of the company, VF Corp.’s Lauren Guthrie, vice president of global inclusion and diversity, spoke about how the corporation has mobilized around the work and the importance of acknowledging how its associates have helped to define that vision, and craft the urgency around its approach. In addition, there is an expectation among consumers and communities for corporations “to lead the path to progress. That’s a responsibility that we’ve stepped into fully,” she said.

At the start of a journey that is focused inward, the effort has the potential “for scoping impact throughout all aspects of how we operate as a business” on consumers, communities, society and policy work, Guthrie said. “We think that transparency is critical to progress. We want to provide a platform for our associates to hold us us accountable, [and] our consumers to hold us accountable.…Ultimately, this isn’t a job that we can do on our own. The work is one that is held communally across business. That is certainly what we’re hearing from our associates and consumers. We’re really excited to lead by example and to provide a forum for others to hold us to task.”

With nearly 50,000 employees and brands like The North Face, Timberland, Supreme, Vans and Dickies, VF is building on its Council to Advance Racial Equity. One goal is to achieve 25 percent representation among Black, indigenous and people of color within its staff at the director level and above by 2030. That figure is 16 percent today within the U.S. Another initiative will call for pay equity analysis and to allow for proper due diligence; any gaps will be addressed in 2024.

While the first round of efforts has been put in place, VF does not consider this to be a one-and-done exercise. There are plans to take the program global. The company has also committed to applying the Mansfield Rule requirements (a recruitment benchmark originally developed for the legal industry) to its talent acquisition and development decisions across all company departments. The requirements call for initial candidate slates to contain at least 50 percent diverse candidates, defined as women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and individuals with disabilities, when hiring or promoting. While it has been used in portions of the organization, VF is rolling out the rule as one of its standard best practices, Guthrie said.

Through its work with different coalitions and working groups such as CEO Action, an organization with the support of 1,600-plus leaders that have pledged to act on supporting a more inclusive workplace group, VF is sharing its best practices and vice versa. “What’s beautiful is that in a competitive industry the work around inclusion, diversity and equity is not competitive. There are many partners who are working toward a greater good,” Guthrie said.

As for accelerating diversity in the fashion industry, Guthrie said it starts with analysis of the data and the numbers.

“There is a huge gap in representation,” she said. “But what sits at the heart of that is recognizing for many people of color that this is a career opportunity. Fashion has many layers and elements to it — not just design. It could be package design, merchandising, marketing or branding. But so many people don’t understand that this is an option, and an incredibly exciting and powerful career option. We have an obligation to raise diverse voices from history who had impact to make sure that history isn’t lost.”

Through its partnership with Pensole, an innovative footwear design academy, VF will introduce students of color to its brands and, ideally, five participants will be offered full-time jobs. Looking for even broader change, Guthrie said middle school and high school students need opportunities to engage with the fashion industry and “recognize that there is a place for them here.”

For Black History Month, VF’s programs included a keynote conversation with The Equity Project’s Nita Mosby Tyler about the opportunity gaps and helping participants “to understand the systemic impact of racism in this country and how all of the context that we’re wading through today stems from decades, if not centuries of historical challenge. For our organization, we think that continued education is really important,” Guthrie said.

By speaking publicly about diversity Tapestry is driving accountability internally, establishing the company as a leader in the space and acknowledging that there is more work to do, according to Carmen Arocho-Blanco, senior director of equity and inclusion, who noted that part of her incentive to join the company was its willingness to share their progress and future plans to drive progress in the area.

A few days ago, Tapestry announced it has signed the Black in Fashion Council’s Active Allyship Pledge, a three-year commitment to help the advancements of Black people in the fashion and beauty industry. The support will “demonstrate to the industry, the council and its very powerful board, Tapestry’s commitment to equity and inclusion to Black people in particular,” Arocho-Blanco said. As visitors to Tapestry’s site can learn, 56 percent of employees in North America are people of color, including 12 percent who identify as Black or African American.

Upon joining Tapestry, Arocho-Blanco put together a three-year strategy focused not only on improving representation but on talent, culture, community and marketplace with myriad actions under each. Flexibility is also key in dealing with things that cannot be anticipated. That will allow the company to address the needs of specific communities when dealing with the impact of the pandemic or other health crises.

To be accountable, “the numbers will tell the story” and dashboards will be created for representation, as well as for the level of education the company is able to attain through training and engagement programs, among other initiatives, Arocho-Blanco said. Other efforts will include addressing some of the systemic policies that may be detrimental to certain identity groups. Once plans are activated, there will be continual assessments. Along with behavioral and cultural change, Tapestry is holding its leaders accountable, too, Arocho-Blanco said.

“Frankly, because we discuss this as an organization with all of our employees, our employees really hold us accountable. Additionally, the new workforce that is coming in is asking more powerful questions than they ever have,” she said, adding that they expect organizations like Tapestry to be transparent about the work that is being done and progress.

In October, the company launched three employee resource groups to build the community and use the power of collective voices to drive this positive change, Arocho-Blanco said. The creation of the Black Alliance at Tapestry, Prouder Together (for the LGBTQ community) and the Working Parents, Caregivers and Allies Group has been impactful, she said, “in a year that has been very hard for many reasons for all of these identity groups, but they also drive greater understanding among these identities and how they intersect.” Each has programming to engage employees and improve education.

The Black Alliance at Tapestry has launched partnerships with seven historically Black colleges and universities with some talent and sourcing fairs having already kicked off. Undergrads will be considered for internships and seniors will be considered for full-time posts. Going forward, the fashion industry in general needs to focus on more places to source talent beyond key cities like New York and Los Angeles, Arocho-Blanche said. While the pandemic has shown how work can be done from anywhere, the opportunity gap is real, she added.

“More than any other industry, the fashion industry has really not shown up in a consistent way for communities of color,” Arocho-Blanco said. “A decade ago I felt there was a lot more progress being made externally. On the runway, certainly we see a lot of diversity. But when you look at our organizations, are we really mirroring that? We are making progress. There certainly is enough talent to go around. That myth that talent doesn’t exist is just a myth. Companies are getting a lot more intentional about how they establish policies and hire people so that we can keep that lens as wide as possible.”

Adding that this diverse talent is going to be a lot harder to get, Arocho-Blanco said after being underrepresented historically, that talent is in great demand, which will result in increased competition among fashion houses. That said, brands should be flexible about things like location, she added.

Another company that is trying to lead by example is The House of LR&C, which was cofounded by Ciara and her husband Russell Wilson along with former Lululemon CEO Christine Day. The company, which includes The Good Man brand and the recently-launched Human Nation label, has a give-back business model. Earlier this month The House of LR&C introduced 13 Commitments to address issues like immigration, Black Lives Matter, BIPOC, equality and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the U.S.

Emphasizing the importance of keeping the discussion going, Ciara said, “You grow through conversation and awareness. There’s been some progress from years and years ago, but there’s a lot more progress that needs to be made and a lot more change that we all hope to see. Or at least, you would hope we all hope to see.”

In July, Target made good on its pledge to permanently raise the minimum wage for entry-level workers to $15 an hour. Last fall, the retailer announced plans to increase representation of its Black team members throughout the company by 20 percent over the next three years. The retailer has more than 350,000 employees. Fifteen percent of all team members identify as Black, 8 percent of the leadership team identifies as Black and about 16 percent of the sales/store employees identify as Black.

As a founding member of the OneTen initiative, Target is helping to train, hire and advance 1 million Black Americans without a four-year degree into family-sustaining jobs. The coalition stretches across a variety of industries.

A Target employee pitches in at a volunteer event.

A Target employee pitches in at a volunteer event.  Courtesy of Target

At H&M, initiatives include establishing a sponsorship and sourcing program with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to increase support and implementation of a talent pipeline from HBCUs, a spokesperson for the company said. The retailer has also launched a leadership development program for store managers called by its acronym LEAD (Learn, Educate, Accelerate and Develop). The plan is to prepare store managers for future senior-level roles. H&M also plans to partner with and highlight people of color-owned businesses to increase opportunities to collaborate with agencies, creatives and influencers of color.

“H&M has pledged to stand with and support the Black community and other underrepresented groups and to use our resources to further support inclusion and diversity in everything we do, not only during Black History Month, but throughout the year,” the company said in a statement.

Controlling the narrative

Committed as Target is to trying to improve diversity within its company and through society at large, none of its executives were available to speak about the issue. Numerous other companies also declined to speak directly, and a few, like Puma and Urban Outfitters, declined to participate. After an inquiry with a spokeswoman for Golden Gate Capital (the owner of Eddie Bauer and PacSun), nine days passed before an Eddie Bauer spokesperson inquired about loving to learn more. The deadline had passed.

Despite transparency increasingly becoming a requirement for corporate America, and many companies spelling out their diversity and inclusivity plans on their sites, there seems to remain a resistance to actually discussing diversity.

That disconnect seems amiss, given that 60 percent of the U.S. population said how a brand responds to racial justice protests will influence whether they will buy or boycott the brand in the future, according to a survey last June. In addition, Millennials and Gen Z are the most racially and ethnically diverse generations in U.S. history, and expect brands and companies to be equally diverse.

For decades, creatives have held an integral role in trying to narrow divides with regard to diversity. Claude McKay, whose book “Home to Harlem” is considered to have started the Harlem Renaissance more than a century ago, was aware of how capitalism impacted racism. He believed racism was inseparable from capitalism, which perpetuated economic inequality. And he repeatedly challenged class struggles.

Intent as many corporate public relations teams are on controlling the narrative in general dealings, that appeared to be heightened in broaching diversity. Several companies restricted any exchanges related to this article to email. Some sent multiple links to corporate guidelines and web pages rather than answer specific questions.

Representatives from VF, Tapestry, Target and Macy’s highlighted the importance of creating opportunities for future generations.

For the first time, Target held a design challenge with HBCU schools and a few students have had their designs incorporated into products being sold in honor of Black History Month. “It’s a way for us to engage with Black designers and new and up-and-coming voices in the industry, and to give them some opportunities to be seen and be spotlighted in a pretty big way,” a spokeswoman for Target said. “There’s our Black History Month creative campaign [Black Beyond Measures] and ongoing content. But that is one where we’re really storytelling with creators to try to build that economic vitality, improve overall well-being for the Black community, and building that strong legacy for future generations.”

Last summer, to provide more direct support to Black communities, TJX committed to an incremental $10 million in grant funding over 2020 and 2021 to international organizations actively working to support racial justice and equity. Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the United Negro College Fund are among the recipients.

As of Feb. 1, 2020, TJX had roughly 286,000 employees around the globe. Stateside, members of racially or ethnically diverse groups comprise 57 percent of the company’s total workforce and 34 percent of its managerial positions. The latter is defined by an assistant store manager post, the equivalent of or above. These figures are expected to be updated to reflect TJX’s most recent fiscal year as part of its annual update in the coming months. The company has said it knows it can do better and wants to increase the number of people of color, including Black associates within management, according to information emailed by a spokesman.

Last year, TJX adopted a global four-phase strategy that aims to support a more inclusive and diverse organization: Fostering conversations, driving engagement, providing education, supporting career-building and expanding online training on inclusivity, including sessions to help team leaders guide open conversations with associates about future efforts and other topics. In addition to its Global Leadership Curriculum, TJX is helping associates to develop professionally through such external programs as The Partnership and Conexion. There are plans to expand these offerings to create a more inclusive and diverse organization at all levels.

This month TJX has organized a four-week series of conversations so employees can learn about the origins of Black History Month, recognize the contributions of Black Americans, understand more about TJX’s racial justice efforts, and consider what each person can do to be more inclusive and give back to communities. The company also launched a Black Associate Resource Group to offer social and professional support, and to promote diversity awareness the workplace. A companywide survey is being conducted to give all employees the opportunity to be heard and to help inform long-term plans.

At Macy’s, Black History Month plans are more extensive than most companies.

As part of its commitment to the Aurora James-founded 15 Percent Pledge, the company has launched 11 Black-owned beauty brands, such as Camille Rose and La Pierre Cosmetics. The gift-centric Story at Macy’s is offering 16 new Black-owned brands. Next month “Icons of Style” will bow at Macy’s showcasing limited-edition collections from Black creatives like Zerina Akers, Misa Hylton, Aminah Abdul Jillil, Allen Onyia and Ouigi Theodore. Black History-themed windows are on display in select cities. Last year, the retailer donated more than $2.5 million to Black community organizations.

Camille Rose, Curlmaker, $22

<span class="s1">Macy’s has introduced more Black-owned beauty brands, Seen here: </span>Camille Rose, Curlmaker, $22  Courtesy Photo

As part of an ongoing program to bolster people of color-owned brands, The Workshop at Macy’s will usher in a new class this spring. Kendi Amani, Goode Beaute and Sassy Jones will be among the participants.

Asked about its employee demographics, a spokesman for Macy’s Inc. deferred comment to later this spring when more details about the company’s diversity efforts will be available. In the interim, he sent a link to the culture section of the company’s 2018 sustainability report. Proud of its long history of employing a diverse and inclusive workforce, the company cited, “Our total workforce is 75 percent women and 60 percent ethnically diverse, and our mission is to ensure that we represent the full spectrum of diversity at all levels.”

Through its Mosaic program, a 12-month endeavor designed to strengthen leadership skills (launched in fall 2019) and other initiatives, Macy’s plans to reach 30 percent for ethnically diverse talent at the senior director level and above by 2025. That would be a notable gain compared to the current amount of 22 percent. To stay on track, a reporting dashboard has been created for performance-related People Leader accountability.

A store window at Macy’s Herald Square flagship featuring the artwork of Rey Rosa and Michael Anthony Pegues.

A store window at Macy’s Herald Square flagship featuring the artwork of Rey Rosa and Michael Anthony Pegues.  Courtesy of Macy's

Earlier this month, Gap Inc. joined the 15 Percent Pledge, committing to increasing pipeline programs by 15 percent to create more opportunities for the Black community within its family of brands. Internships, apprenticeships and training are part of this effort, according to information provided by the company.

In June, Gap is planning to release an update on the commitments the company made in June 2020 that should feature updated statistics and additional layers to its Equity & Belonging practices. Gap also expects to share quarterly updates next month.

In the U.S. headquarters, 5 percent of Gap Inc’s employees identify as Black and 10 percent identify as Latine. With 97,725 staffers worldwide, the company does not currently have a global breakdown of demographics. In the U.S., 18 percent of employees identify as Black, and 25 percent identify as Hispanic, according to information provided by a Gap spokeswoman. Last June the company pledged to double representation of Black and Latine employees at all levels in its U.S. headquarters by 2025. That will involve a focus on functions that make and market products to ensure that we are creating “for all, with all,” the company noted.

The company also plans to increase representation of Black employees by 50 percent in store leadership roles nationwide by 2025. Last year, Gap Inc. tapped an external firm to asses pay data by race for all U.S. employees and has vowed to address any disparities. That work is still underway.

Among its numerous efforts, Gap continues its partnership with Harlem’s Fashion Row to celebrate and collaborate with Black designers. Upcoming initiatives will include The Gap Collective capsule collection featuring Black designers and artists. “We believe it is our responsibility to ensure that everyone feels seen in the products that we make and sell,” the spokeswoman said.

With Shopify’s 2020 Sustainability Report due out in a few months, a company spokeswoman cited 2019 data that noted that 52-percent of its employees self-identified as Caucasian, 22.5 percent self-identified as “racialized” and indigenous and the remaining 22.5 percent did not specify or preferred not to say. According to the company, its Diversity & Belonging team has been actively working to ensure stronger representation by hiring and retaining talent.

On another front, Shopify and Operation Hope teamed up last fall with the goal of helping to create one million Black-owned businesses by 2030. The Hope One Million New Black Business and New Black Entrepreneurship Initiatives (1MBB) aim to provide up to $130 million in resources. Still in the early stages of creating awareness and kicking off the initiative, Shopify was unable to share specifics about how much has been awarded to date.

The company aims to be more of a global champion for diversity, according to Shopify’s diversity and belonging lead Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh. The company developed a Black-Owned Business Directory that was created by Black employees at the company that features more than 850 Black-owned online stores powered by Shopify. Some of the systematic barriers some entrepreneurs face, according to Hasfal-McIntosh, include access to community, hardware, work space, strategic partnerships, education about financial literacy, marketing and mentorship.

Earlier this month, Shopify’s president Harley Finkelstein joined the Hope global board of advisers, along with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young. Noting that Hope has 28 years of experience in engaging in this work, Hasfal-McIntosh said the alliance is a two-way learning opportunity for Shopify and Hope. As for whether companies have sought advice from Shopify about how they might adopt similar programs, she said they had due to proactive outreach and inbound requests.

“What we say is, ‘There is space for all of this.’ This is a lofty goal…the biggest ask is how can we come together, join together, stand together to make this happen? It’s bigger than any individual company,” Hasfal-McIntosh said. “This is solving and addressing economic disparity in the Black community. We’re going to need more than Shopify and Hope to accomplish that.”

Last June, Nike vowed to donate $40 million to support the Black community over four years on behalf of the Nike, Jordan and Converse brands via organizations focused on social justice, education and economic empowerment to address racial inequality. NBA legend Michael Jordan and the Jordan brand pledged an additional $100 million. The initial partners, Black Girls Code, NAACP Empowerment programs and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund each received $1 million grants. In July, the Jordan Brand and Jordan made $1 million donations to the LDF, and the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People and Families Movement, and $500,000 to Black Voters Matter. In January, Nike named Black Girls Venture as its newest partner, investing $500,000.

In addition, starting this year Nike’s Black Community Commitment will support a series of grants totaling $1.75 million to organizations working on behalf of Black communities in Boston, Memphis, St. Louis, Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Nike plans to announce its next national grant partners, as well as local ones starting later this month.

Strengthening recruitment, promotion and the retention of diverse talent continues at Nike through an assortment of initiatives. For the fiscal year 2019, Nike increased vice president level representation of underrepresented groups to 21 percent, which is a 2 percent increase compared to the previous year. In partnership with the Executive Leadership Council, the National Black MBA Association, Code2040 and others, Nike is working to hire more Black leaders across all levels of the company.

As is the case with other Fortune 500 companies and apparel brands of varying sizes, employees at a few apparel companies continue to call for systematic change within their organizations to balance racial inequities, as opposed to goodwill donations. One example from last year was the anonymous online group known as Black at Nike that aired their allegations of mistreatment as current or former Nike staff. Last summer, the group’s creators called on senior leaders to value the Black and people of color employees in the same way they value the Black and people of color consumers. The site was dismantled without any explanation within a matter of days.

At that time, a Nike spokesman said, “We urge every employee to speak up, if an employee experiences something that does not align with Nike’s values and policies,” adding that anything reported goes to employee relations, then a thorough investigation is done and any violation of Nike’s Matter of Respect policy leads to corrective action and possible termination.”

Outdoor brands trailing in diversity?

The outdoor industry has been publicly criticized for not being more inclusive.

Statistics collected by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service show that nearly 70 percent of the people who visit national parks and the like are white, even though people of color comprise 40 percent of the total U.S. population. However, some leaders like Columbia Sportswear have been working to try to rectify that.

The Portland, Ore.-based company has been working with GirlTrek, Ebony Anglers and Brown Girls Climb, among other groups. Through its focus with the National Parks Foundation, Columbia helps get children outdoors, especially those who live in cities.

Columbia has formed a senior leadership team on diversity, equity and inclusion that is being led by senior vice president of supply chain Lisa Kulok. Rather than leave the group in human resources, Columbia “deliberately embedded” it within the business, a company spokeswoman said.

During Black History Month, Columbia’s Black Employee Resource group has been putting together educational resources and they have emphasized Black individuals’ impact on society and communities in the company’s weekly newsletter.

Adidas, on the other hand, has been less forthcoming.

A spokesman for Adidas AG and Reebok said, “We are unable to offer an interview about diversity and Black History Month.”

Asked for demographics about the employee base and status updates about diversity efforts, the spokesman sent a link highlighting an update to its commitments. Adidas’ numerous efforts include strengthening its Anti-Discrimination and Non-Retaliation policy, training sessions about creating accountability for inclusive, responsive leadership for the executive board and other leaders, listening sessions that included 700-plus employees and was led by 40 leaders from its committee to accelerate inclusion and equality. Adidas is reforming its global hiring and career development processes and starting to increase support for communities of color, including investing $120 million to strengthen and empower Black communities in the U.S. through 2025.

Through its Cornerstone Initiative, which aims to support and develop Black and Latine-owned businesses in the sportswear and fashion industry, Adidas will increase the diversity of its supplier base by investing time, expertise and funding to boost their digital presence and partner and address needs in their community. Adidas has also committed $10 million over the next three years to fund BeyGood social impact programs, organizations and/or initiatives. As a first step, Adidas has matched Beyoncé’s $1 million contribution to NAACP for BeyGood’s Black-owned Small Business Fund. The effort will help Black-owned small businesses.

Beyoncé in a look from the Ivy Park Collaboration with Adidas.

Beyoncé in a look from the Ivy Park Collaboration with Adidas.  Robin Harper/Courtesy of Ivy Park

Reebok will invest $15 million over the next five years into Black and Latine communities. The brand has relaunched its Human Rights Award and has boosted the focus on its nonprofit school exercise program, BOKS, to Black and Latine communities.

In addition, Adidas has created the U.S. United Against Racism Accountability Council to provide oversight and acceleration for all UAR targets, policies and commitments in the U.S. The group is comprised of 12 elected employees from diverse backgrounds representing Employee Resource Groups, retail, distribution centers and key cities. It also includes a team of Black and Latine athletes, creators and entertainers.

The company’s September update noted that “we are hitting above our hiring targets in the U.S. for Black and Latine people within our workforce at both Adidas and Reebok. We are also targeting 20 percent to 23 percent Black and Latine employees in corporate roles by 2025, and 12 percent in leadership positions in the U.S. by that time.”

Last year employee-led efforts at both companies were organized to call out in-house bad behavior and to demand equality for all employees. Adidas subsequently agreed to invest $120 million toward U.S. efforts to support Black communities through 2025. Adidas also agreed to develop new U.S. Anti-Discriminatory and Harassment Standards that would be governed by a third-party investigator.

After repeated calls for a public apology and internal investigation of Adidas AG executive board member Karen Parkin for remarks she made at a 2019 companywide meeting, she exited the company at the end of June last year. Parkin had said concerns about how non-white and LGBTQ employees were “noise” and were only stemming from the sneaker giant’s North American offices.

A Reebok employee, who was one of the more outspoken critics of the company, declined to comment about how things have changed at the company and what more needs to be done, due to personal circumstances.