Did fashion shift diversity efforts to the side in the last year? Certainly its fading from the headlines doesn’t mean the industry’s issues with racism dematerialized. And in 2022, companies will have to get better at keeping the spinning plates of each letter in DE&I steadily spinning.
As 2021 progressed it appeared the diversity conversation waned — though the industry is split on whether action waned in tandem.
If one asks individual companies, quite a bit of progress was made on DE&I in 2021. It was a “quieter but no less important” period, according to Lauren Guthrie, vice president of global inclusion, diversity and action at VF Corp. (the company shifted the department name this year to further hold itself accountable to the action portion of the diversity conversation).
“Honestly, for us it’s been a matter of heads down — certainly things to celebrate but also opportunities to rethink and reassess and triage a bit differently than some of the most critical conversations last year that really were responding to a societal fire alarm and recognition moment that more was necessary,” she said.
But ask those with a bit more of a bird’s-eye view and there were holes in fashion’s diversity efforts last year.
“I don’t know that [efforts] waned in the sense that they diminished, but they definitely felt a bit lazy in a sense that it felt like everyone was doing the same thing,” CaSandra Diggs, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, told WWD. “And not that you can’t have more than one person or one group approaching a challenge, but I think this industry fails to be as collaborative as they can when solving for these big issues.”
The year held a lot of promises and updated corporate social responsibility reports, with companies reiterating their commitments and revealing, in just some cases, a nominal uptick in representation numbers. More brands and businesses joined Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge (the project claims it has been able to shift nearly $10 billion of revenue to Black-owned businesses), for example, and chief diversity officers rolled out more corporate efforts at progress. Some businesses kept their efforts (or lack thereof) in obscurity. Several still figuratively stepped in it with things like a sweats-boxer combo that appropriated hip-hop culture or reaching claims of being the first streetwear designer.
Still, when it came to representation, particularly as it relates to designers and industry leaders of color, recognition wasn’t spread widely enough.
“I kept seeing the same voices, the same people getting recognition, getting grants, getting interviewed, being included in conversation,” Diggs said. “Through my role as president, I’ve met so many other talented people in the industry that deserve the opportunity, the visibility and they’re so intelligent and so strategic and there are a lot of great solutions in those conversations and they need to be heard on a more global level.”
The year was a mixed bag of progress and stagnation at best, regression at worst — so where did fashion end up?
“I think 2021 and a portion of 2020 was actually fashion’s first steps, so I think while they’re not closer to diversity, equity and inclusion, the roadmap to it is getting clearer,” Diggs said. “Many of us are now understanding a lot of the variables that need to be addressed to get to equity but we’re not closer to it. We’ve just begun first steps.”
The Black in Fashion Council, which released its first report in collaboration with the Human Rights Campaign at the end of September, found fashion (at least according to the 30 stakeholders who participated in the survey) “still unmistakably devoid of Black representation” in 2021.
“Diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry are very much still a work in progress” BIFC co-founders Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Sandrine Charles said in a joint statement to WWD. “We’re excited to be a pivotal part of this work because we’ve been part of this work long before it became a trend and understand that it’s going to take a while for infrastructures and systems to change. But it’s been encouraging to see real commitment from people and brands, and we’re hopeful that people will continue to be part of this movement and not just in it for the moments.”
For Diggs, real commitment from people and brands where diversity was concerned this year looked like transparency around representation numbers, contributing to organizations led by people of color and true — not performed — allyship. (“Allyship,” she said, “can’t look like guilt, allyship can’t look like resentment, allyship has to be unconditional.”)
But companies, according to Diggs, were still “proceeding with way too much caution” in 2021.
“[Companies] need to raise the amount of risk that they take in terms of engaging with Black and BIPOC professionals and investing in those entrepreneurs, they need to increase that level,” she said. “They need to stop being so risk averse in that area.”
What to Watch in DE&I in 2022
The movement to bring fashion into better alignment with the makeup of the global consumer, at least for those really committed to it, has shifted a bit to a focus on the “E” of DE&I, which companies may be giving greater attention to in 2022 — though they’ll have to do it without leaving the “D” and “I” behind.
The shift to equity, according to Guthrie, makes sense at this stage in the road to progress.
“I think it’s a natural part of a maturity curve to be honest,” she said. “I think the focus on diversity is a more comfortable place for organizations to start, there’s an inherent feedback loop from the data perspective, it’s measurable, it’s easier in some ways to wrap your arms around and I think across industry there’s more and more support for that to become an achievable goal within organizations.
“From a VF perspective, we really evolved our strategy last year with our launch of our council to advance racial equity, which was the first time that we used equity with great intentionality as part of our strategy and a focus area. For us it’s just meant a maturing beyond but in spite of that energy to drive diversity,” Guthrie added.
Equity, though most grasp its literal definition as fairness or justice in the way people are treated (per Merriam-Webster), is something many companies are still working to understand, at least as it pertains to really putting it into practice.
“The way I define equity is really looking at the systemic processes and ways of working and where bias or discrimination can live within those internally as well as externally,” said Guthrie, whose team has doubled in size in the past year as VF works to build DE&I into the core of its values. “Equity really starts with one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one process at a time and it’s ongoing. There is no finish line particularly when we start talking about equity, it’s just the focus areas change and evolve.”
At Ralph Lauren, a spokesperson said “equity continues to be the goal,” though efforts to improve representation won’t fall by the wayside. The company has committed to ensure that by 2023, 20 percent of its global leadership are people from “underrepresented racial groups.”
“We know diversity, equity and inclusion are distinct, and require unique strategies and programs, but we believe all elements must work in sync to drive progress,” the spokesperson said.
DE&I efforts could be considered a bit like marriage when it comes to commitment to sustain them. Focusing on one part alone and leaving another on the backburner doesn’t work. Nor does diminished effort suffice when things get difficult or the path forward isn’t clear.
“I think that we’ve dealt with diversity more than anything. I think the inclusion and the equity piece are the two pieces that need more attention,” CFDA’s Diggs said. “I think for most people, equity looks like diversity: We’ve invited them into the room, we’ve sat them at the table. But that’s not what equity is. If we were more equitable they would have a voice, they would have more autonomy, they would control of P&L, they would be able to make more decisions. You have to empower them. You can’t just invite them to the table, they have to feel safe in that environment to be able to contribute to that environment.”
That’s what Levi Strauss & Co. is trying to do with its DE&I efforts — and the company’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer Elizabeth A. Morrison said efforts haven’t gotten lazy at all.
“I don’t agree that it’s gotten slow, I agree that we’re now going deep and we’re going to work. So there’s not black squares on Instagram because we’re building and launching programs, we’re running data, we’re looking at data to shape programs and strategy,” she said. “This is the real work of diversity, equity and inclusion. And while there might not be this really loud, worldwide movement demanding change, now you have the teams and the practitioners that are really behind the scenes working with executives and leaders and employees and teaching them the how.”
At Levi’s, reorganizations this year brought HR communications under the DE&I umbrella and Morrison’s remit, a move — if undertaken more broadly across the industry — that could minimize the diversity-related PR nightmares that make companies exactly the kind of risk averse that is hindering their progress. Morrison also recently sat in a two-day talent summit where the company discussed top leadership and how they’ll grow and retain that talent, marking, she said, “one of the first times that a diversity practitioner has had a seat at that table.”
“I was able to, number one, upfront talk to the group about how bias shows up in performance evaluation and actually be an active participant in the conversation if and when I felt there was bias or people weren’t using firm examples and evidence versus opinion,” she said.
Heading into 2022, Levi’s DE&I team will also be partnering “very closely” with the company’s vice president of talent to evolve training across existing talent and to do an “equity review” of its current talent processes to ensure there’s no built-in or residual bias. It’s also putting a focus on development, with plans to launch career growth and development programs for women and employees of color.
“We have to keep challenging ourselves and just staffing up and launching a few programs isn’t going to do it. We need true partnerships with the business, true partnerships between diversity, human resources, the talent teams, the business leaders,” Morrison said. “In DE&I several things are and need to be true at the same time. There’s never really a point where you can stop focusing on diversity and start focusing on equity.”