As businesses and retailers nationwide clean up from the looting and rioting that have taken place alongside the peaceful protests over the killing of George Floyd — another black man dead at the hands of police officers — the industry faces a pivotal moment.
Many of fashion’s top companies rushed out strong statements condemning racism and doled out donations to organizations supporting diversity over the past week. Many of those same organizations also turned all their social media channels off on Tuesday, joining the Blackout Tuesday movement.
But the retail-fashion-luxury-beauty complex, like the rest of corporate America, faces a challenge that can’t be solved by money and words alone.
Institutional racism needs to be met with action.
That means executives and corporate leaders wanting to take on diversity — for real — are going to have to actively seek to embrace change themselves and commit to bringing new voices to the table, to change hiring practices even more drastically than they already have and remember racism is real and important even when protesters are no longer out in the streets by the thousands and pressing the issue loudly.
There’s no easy playbook, but there are some good places to start when people reemerge from their coronavirus lockdown and return to a changed work world.
“The first thing is to accept that there’s no going back,” said Kelly Charles-Collins, chief executive officer of the HR Legally Speaking consultancy. “This will not be business as usual. There’s no new normal, there’s none of that. When we go back into the workplace, the first thing they have to do is treat this like any other trauma. What policies are you going to put in place to ensure you are addressing the mental health issues that are associated with both COVID-19 and the additional trauma of the race reactions?”
Then, Charles-Collins said, people have to start to talk, “to have these types of town hall conversations where people can truthfully, honestly express what’s going on and what they’re feeling without fear of judgment.”
Those conversations should help lead to an approach to diversity that is “more than window dressing,” she said. “That has be part of their strategic plan, it can no longer be, ‘Oh, we put it on the web site.’”
Companies wanting diversity in thought and workforce can start simply by bringing more people to the table.
“Hire black people,” said Gabrielle Wooden, founder and chief writer of Cotta, which helps makes brands comfortable communicating their social values.
“Businesses have to recognize the power of diversity in their board ranks and in their senior management ranks as a tool that improves decision-making,” Wooden said. “It’s truly an asset to have different points of view. It’s not only an ethical decision, but it’s a lucrative one.”
Companies should also adjust their supply chains to incorporate minority-owned businesses and look to have a diverse rank-and-file workforce, she said.
“I’m not talking about security guards,” Wooden said. “I’m talking about engineers, coders, designers, marketers, beauty chemists. Companies need to be intentional about diversity as a business strategy.”
Jide Zeitlin, chairman and ceo of Tapestry Inc. and one of the very few black executives atop the corporate organizational chart of a publicly held company, wrote on LinkedIn: “We cannot succeed if the ideal that is America does not succeed, including in different and diverse ways globally. We cannot attract and engage talented colleagues.”
In response to the riots, Zeitlin added in a statement that, “At Tapestry, we are focused on being part of the solution. Combating racial injustice and driving real, positive, long-term change. We will survive a few store closures and, thankfully, our teams are safe. We can replace our broken windows and missing handbags, but we cannot bring back the black lives that have been lost.”
To make lasting change on diversity, the industry is going to have to stick with it.
February is Black History Month, but racism needs to be fought 12 months a year. (Just like sustained progress on LGBTQ rights will need more than the flurry of rainbow-tinted collections and marketing messages accompanying the Pride celebration this month).
“You have to be living this throughout the year,” said Filip Nemeth, a senior vice president in AlixPartners’ retail practice. “It has to be part of your DNA. It really starts within the company with the leadership.
“How can you really make sure you’re giving these minorities a voice throughout the year that can help you drive that outreach and make sure that you stay ahead of the game and not try to catch up when something like this happens?” Nemeth said.
Addressing racism on the corporate level might be a matter of keeping up momentum as the matter is front-and-center right now.
Team Roc, Roc Nation’s philanthropic arm, on Tuesday ran full-page advertisements in local and national newspapers in dedication to George Floyd. The ad includes a speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., in March 1965 and has signatures from Roc Nation head Jay-Z, and thought leaders Van Jones and Angela Rye, the attorneys for the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd; Ben Crump and S. Lee Merritt; activist organizations The Innocence Project and Until Freedom, and the parents of Botham Jean, DJ Henry and Antwon Rose 2nd, three men killed by police.
“We are in such a critical time and our nation is under incredible duress,” said Dania Diaz, head of Team Roc. “Our approach to pressing the issue is multitiered. It starts with raising awareness of these issues because they’re very complex. We’ve learned from the past and have so much more energy to really drive change and wanted to put it out as a reminder.”
Prior to the ads, the entertainment company urged and pressured elected officials to bring justice, including Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, where Arbery was murdered, and Gov. Tom Wolf in Minnesota, where Floyd was killed. The company also on May 29 and on June 2 helped Crump and Merritt hold a virtual press conference on Zoom, where they took questions from reporters and provided updates on the cases. The calls were also streamed on the Team Roc web site and picked up by outlets like ABC News, MSNBC and TMZ.
The attorneys will hold press briefings for the cases every Tuesday.
“It’s so hard to operate as a human being and a company without having a connection to the world,” Diaz said. “What we’ve done with Team Roc, we’re listening, responding and reflecting a lot of the concerns that we’re passionate about and feel on a very personal level. We hope companies are diverse enough to engage many people in the world. I think there’s a real opportunity for people to educate themselves on what an equitable society looks like. There’s an urgency to pay attention and act whether that’s changing mind-set and policies and engage black and brown communities more intentionally.”
Many fashion companies are using the moment to think deeply about how they operate.
Erik Fagerlind, cofounder of Sneakersnstuff, said: “Next steps for us are to look at how we are set up internally to have a better understanding. How is our organization set up locally and globally? That will take some time to understand and adjust, but the work has already started. Short/midterm we are building a plan on how we can better use our platform to call out injustice when we see it. To lend our platforms to those who have an important message to share. It is our duty to inform and educate, just as much as we create, entertain, story tell and sell products.”
Reminders of how far fashion still needs to come are everywhere.
Even after years of pushing “diversity” efforts, fashion and retail as industries are still predominantly white, particularly when it comes to executive and leadership positions.
This leaves the industries in an unsympathetic position when it comes to today’s wave of protests.
That isn’t stopping some companies from coming out in support of the protests — any issue can be turned into a marketing opportunity, and it’s so popular now that there is an entire world of communications dubbed “cause marketing.” But there’s already backlash. Nike’s “Don’t Do It” video ad was met widely with commenters on social media pointing out the company’s own lack of diversity in leadership, labor issues and questions of what tangible impact a minute-long video decrying racism has.
L’Oréal got major pushback after posting a public comment in support of Black Lives Matter, most notably by a model it fired two years ago after she spoke out publicly on race.
Beyond being called out for using protests as a marketing ploy, commenters have also pointed out that such companies have yet to make any public demands on politicians or support legislative efforts around issues of racism and police brutality.
Still, polling research from Morning Consult shows that brands are better off saying something, even if it doesn’t seem entirely genuine, than nothing at all, if they want to appeal to “liberal, younger Americans.” In a recent report not based on the protests, it identified civil rights and criminal justice reform as being “not very controversial” for companies to weigh in on. “Anthem protesting,” the closest thing to the current protests, is seen as more controversial, and thereby more of a risk for a brand to take a stance on.
But one of the most controversial things brands can do now is weigh in on President Trump, whose statements on the protests include “when they start looting, we start shooting,” an insistence on “law and order” and demands of state governors that they begin “aggressively” arresting all protesters. The White House also brought in military police, which used tear gas and force to disperse peaceful protesters in front of the presidential residence so Trump could walk across the street for a photo op holding a Bible in front of a church.
“Speaking about Trump — either positively or negatively — is far more likely to generate backlash than win your brand any favor,” Morning Consult wrote in its report. “For every person you’re making happy, there are almost twice as many who are unhappy. That trend holds if you issue a positive statement.
“The best way to make consumers happy with your brand is pretty simple: Develop a reputation for treating and paying employees well, and create more American jobs when possible,” the report added. “There are plenty of other ways to boost your image, like partnering with charities and being transparent about labor practices, but nothing beats the basics.”
Here, people from across the industry weigh in on the moment and how fashion can move into the future.
B. Michael, fashion designer
“It’s disheartening that it took a moment like this for retailers to do what is right. For independent black fashion designers, there has been an economic pandemic for decades. They have been fighting to become stakeholders of a $3 trillion global industry. The practice of only buying and including sanctioned designers must end.
“We’ve had too many coalitions. Many companies today have diversity programs that produce no real equity change. The solution needed for independent black-owned brands is economic inclusion and becoming real stakeholders. Racial, economic, education, social, criminal and health justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. We know that not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Bethann Harrison, activist and former model
“I have never seen anything like this.…My only thing for everyone going forward — from the councils of fashion to different places all over — is to try to integrate racially. That is the only thing that I am asking of anyone right now and there is a way of doing it…you don’t want to hire people because they are of color, but you want to hire people because they can do the job well enough. Start to gather an amount of people who could be possible contenders for jobs that are out there. Every company should now start to look at themselves and to realize that they can really integrate with more racial diversity inside the company. Make that an objective. If you all think you want to be down with Black Lives Matter, then this is what you really do.”
Brandice Daniel, founder and chief executive officer of Harlem’s Fashion Row
“The retail industry is now forced to take a real look at the numbers. Numbers don’t lie. How many retail ceo’s are black? How many editors in chief positions are held by someone black? Are there any international brands owned by a black designer? How many creative directors of luxury brands are black? What percentage of designers in your design room are black? How many of them hold a leadership role?
“The race issue in fashion and retail has been glaring for years. However, with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, we have been pushed to our absolute limit. We are tired of being exploited as inspiration and as a source of revenue. We demand to be treated equally. We demand to be heard. We ask that every retailer do a full analysis of their staff and ask themselves if they have a race issue. We ask that every retailer look at their supplier base. How many labels are owned by black designers? Sadly, for most, it’s none or one. We ask the fashion industry to do better. Not later, but now. It’s time. Enough is enough.”
Susan Sherman, cofounder of the St. Louis Fashion Fund
“It would be amazing if from the top echelon of the [Council of Fashion Designers of America], there was a playbook for all of us in our industry with some detailed examples about how we can come back stronger in the midst of all this craziness. I know they are giving grants, and we are doing that locally, too. But now with the looting and everything else is there more that we can be doing as an industry?”
Barbara Randall, president of the Garment District Alliance
“The Garment District Alliance will work with retailers as they open to ensure that they can operate safely.…The GDA tenants are a fairly diverse group with regard to business sectors represented here. I think this is an instance where collectively and individually the need is to think global, act local. There is systemic racism built into the most powerful institutions in our nations — banking, real estate, education, housing, health care…it goes on and on. Corporate leaders — especially leaders of the very largest corporations in our country — must address these conditions head on, acknowledge and take responsibility for eliminating systemic racism built into our system. They should be charged with eliminating those systems and should be codified in our laws. On a local level, [everyone should be] acting with decency, and engaging so that we can even understand our blind spots. Society is a contract that we agree to, to live together as a group, but not all members necessarily agree with the contract…the contract benefits some and not others.”
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union
“Many of the workers in retail stores are also members of communities of color. They share many of the same concerns as the people who are on the outside. Retail companies all over this country need to do a better job of listening to their own workers to understand the legitimate concerns that people have about systemic racism. In order to reopen, the decisions are going to go beyond the things that will make it possible to reopen. They have to take part in the broader conversation in this country about what we do to our societies on justice and inequality.
“If you are asking me about whether there should be specific security protocols they need to entice right now, I don’t think that’s the question. Right now in New York, stores don’t even know when they will be able to reopen. It’s going to be a while. We’re already dealing with other questions about health and safety.…What stores need to do is more of a question for government authorities to keep stores safe and secure for customers. The stores have to worry about how to make it a healthy and safe place for customers. But this is an issue for all of society. How do we listen to the legitimate concerns of people who make up our communities?”