Old Navy and the Fifteen Percent Pledge have teamed on an initiative to ramp up diversity through creatives emerging in the retail industry on the national level.
In partnership with the Fifteen Percent Pledge, Old Navy is building upon its Project WE series, an assortment of graphic T-shirts dreamed up by diverse artists — to further inclusivity and racial equity for creatives. The first two editions of the Project WE x Fifteen Percent Pledge collection will launch Monday online and in stores.
Project WE bowed in January 2021 to give diverse artists greater visibility and equitable access.
This venture marks the Fifteen Percent Pledge’s first product collaboration. In addition, Old Navy will be donating $500,000 to the nonprofit to support emerging Black creative entrepreneurs through its Imagine Mission Fund. Together they are trying to improve inclusivity and racial equity for creatives and artists, who have historically lacked equitable economic opportunities and representation in major U.S. art museums.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd under custody of Minneapolis police officers and at the onset of what would become a nationwide social justice movement, the luxury accessories designer Aurora James initiated the Fifteen Percent Pledge to encourage major retailers and corporations to designate 15 percent of their purchasing power to Black-owned businesses. Twenty-nine retailers and corporate partners have committed to multiyear contracts in taking the Fifteen Percent Pledge, with the main goal being to diversify the supply chain. The nonprofit also considers other opportunities and partnerships with those companies to explore and support Black businesses.
James, a Toronto native, started the luxury accessories company Brother Vellies in New York in 2013 with the aim of preserving traditional African design practices and techniques, and creating artisanal jobs. The company’s designs are now handcrafted in different parts of the world. James serves as creative director.
The Fifteen Percent Pledge’s executive director LaToya Williams-Belford said, “We’re definitely always finding ways to deepen our partnerships to do more work, to amplify Black entrepreneurs and ultimately give them further and deeper opportunity to gain more visibility to generate generational wealth.”
The Fifteen Percent Pledge is estimated to have funneled more than $10 billion in capital to Black entrepreneurs nationwide. Developing more collaborative products and other special projects is decided on a case-by-case basis with partners.
Williams-Belford said, “The pledge is two years old. This is a completely new way of working. Getting more retailers to understand that although we are an economic justice and racial equity nonprofit organization, our work is a business proposition. The more you can diversify your assortment, the more you can attract new customers and further customer loyalty, the more you can drive your bottom line.”
In addition, more retailers and companies need to put into practice the more innovative thinking that “products by Black entrepreneurs are not just for Black people. They have universal appeal and are a revenue driver,” she said. “And it’s a challenge for many retailers to think about a 15 percent allocation. They think, ‘We’ve never done it. It’s difficult and maybe it’s even impossible.’”
However daunting that might sound, the nonprofit was set up with pledge takers and corporations on one side and a community of 2,000 Black businesses that are being cultivated and partnered with to ensure there is a strong pipeline to reach goals. The majority of retailers that take the pledge do so with an initial index of 3 to 4 percent in relation to a diverse supply chain, Williams-Belford said. Getting retailers to take the leap to 15 percent is the greatest challenge. “When we have really big systemic problems, we have to think outside the box and be innovative and courageous to create some change. We can’t keep doing the same thing,” she said.
The changing news cycle and economic concerns are impacting the reception to the pledge. “In 2020, the whole world was talking about systemic racism and the history of race in America. A lot of companies were running to back action. The news cycle has changed with new things rising to the top of the national conversation, new challenges and our public health continues to be scary and ongoing,” she said. “What we try to show to retailers and businesses is that taking the pledge, becoming a more inclusive operation is good for business. If you are struggling in the pandemic and if inflation is a real thing, which we all know it is, what better way to open up your assortment. Bring on some new products and new partners to think differently about your overall business proposition. The pledge is definitely about diversity, equity and inclusion but we don’t want to just live in that silo. What we know is that more diversity, equity and inclusion in your supply chain is that it is good business that leads to greater revenue.”
For the first Fifteen Percent Pledge collaborative product, Old Navy and the James-founded nonprofit lined up a group of artists from historically marginalized communities to share their visions and voices through T-shirts that will be released through 2023. The partnership provides a platform for artists to build their businesses and increase their audiences. That ideology is a focus for the Pledge’s Business Equity Community.
For Monday’s online and in-store debut for the Project WE series, designs made by the Brazilian artist and illustrator Camila Rosa and the Brooklyn-based artist Shanee Benjamin will be the first to be featured. As an homage to Latinx Heritage Month, Rosa’s T-shirt has an image of strong women with flame and floral symbols. In honor of LGBTQ History Month, Benjamin’s creation highlights diverse faces as a nod to Pride culture.
Next in the rotation will be work from the Toronto-based artist Benny Bing, who saw the lack of Black female subjects in contemporary art and used that as a catalyst for his craft. Bing’s collaborative design is meant to celebrate Black womanhood and the beauty and resilience of Black culture. It will be unveiled in late October. In a statement, Bing singled out the importance of celebrating Blackness and “the beauty of our culture and who we are.”
Old Navy plans to continue rolling out Project WE x Fifteen Percent Pledge artist collaborations.
Meanwhile, the Fifteen Percent Pledge is looking to engage with more of the bigger retailers that are bringing in larger annual revenue, such as Walmart and Target. Closing the racial wealth gap will require partnering with “big-box retailers that control a lion’s share of those revenues and Black businesses need to have a seat at that table,” Williams-Belford said, adding that Walmart and Target already have existing programs and initiatives in place that suggest they understand the business value of diversity and inclusion.
Taking the pledge also provides accountability, a data-driven element, public information, and going all-in accelerates the strategic impact, Williams-Belford added. The nonprofit is not involved in any formal conversations at the moment with either retailer but there has been some back-and-forth. “They know we exist and we know they exist. We’re trying to figure how do we get to a more formal conversation,” she said.
Separately, consumers and community members have the option of doing their part by signing a petition on the Fifteen Percent Pledge’s site. The objective is for them to research the companies they support with their dollars to ensure they are living up to their values, to be intentional in using their spending to buy from Black businesses, and understanding how to close the racial wealth gap and how that is good economics for everyone, she said, adding that with the barrage of products that are offered, consumers need to be adventurous and try something different.