UPDATE: June 10 ― After publication of this article, Sephora announced it had signed up to the pledge dedicating 15% of its shelf space to Black-owned companies, stating, “It’s the right thing to do.”
As demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism take over the streets and social media, corporate America has gotten the message that silence is not an option. Cue the flood of corporate statements of solidarity with the Black community over the past week as people across the United States and the world protest the killing of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis who died on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck.
There is a “deep ... conversation about racial equity and companies” taking place right now, said Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management specializing in identity and diversity at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business.
“Even five years ago, six years ago, when we were dealing with the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we still weren’t getting this type of response from corporate leaders,” Creary said.
But just saying something as opposed to nothing isn’t enough. One article after another published in recent days criticized statements by CEOs and big brands for being, as one Atlantic piece put it, “so vague, they’re meaningless.”
That’s why Aurora James, the Brooklyn-based founder of the sustainable retail store Brother Vellies, started the Fifteen Percent Pledge social media campaign. “You asked how you can help. This is your opportunity,” the campaign’s website said.
The population of the United States is nearly 15% Black. So major retailers should work to ensure the products they sell are representative of this diversity, James argued.
Launched on May 31, the Fifteen Percent Pledge is calling on 10 major retailers to commit to having 15% of the products they sell come from Black-owned businesses.
It’s quickly gaining steam. In just five days it has gained more than 18,500 Instagram followers, and the goal is to reach 1 million signatures on the petition.
“Black people spend trillions of dollars in this country every year but yet represent an insignificant fraction of how these companies allocate their purchasing power,” James told HuffPost by email. “I am asking these huge corporations to rethink their business strategy as well as rethink business relationships in order to fairly represent the Black community on their shelves.”
The companies called out by the Fifteen Percent Pledge campaign include Walmart Inc., Amazon’s Whole Foods, Target Corp., Home Depot Inc., Saks Fifth Avenue Inc., Net-a-Porter, Shopbop, Barnes & Noble Inc., Sephora and cannabis dispensary MedMen Enterprises.
“These are businesses that have a big economic influence. We want them to seek out and invest in brands they may have previously turned a blind eye to,” James said. “The support from these major retailers will help these brands grow when they are seeking outside investment or when they are walking into a bank.”
HuffPost contacted the 10 businesses to ask if they would sign on to the Fifteen Percent Pledge. Target, MedMen, Sephora, WholeFoods, Saks and Walmart did not respond to multiple requests for comment by publication. Shopbop, Barnes & Noble, Net a Porter and Home Depot confirmed that they would not take part but would instead focus on their own racial diversity measures.
Meanwhile, some companies not named on the Fifteen Percent Pledge website announced that they will sign on.
Rent the Runway posted on Instagram Wednesday that it will adhere to the 15% target and will also allocate “an additional $1,000,000 to support Black designers through our wholesale, platform and co-manufacturing initiatives.”
Online retailer From the Lobby also committed to the pledge.
James’ call for commitment comes as Black communities and Black businesses are reeling from the disproportionate effects of the pandemic.
Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to report a family member or close friend who has died from COVID-19, according to a recent poll ― the result of underlying health disparities, less access to testing and medical care, living in neighborhoods with poorer air quality, the list goes on.
Black unemployment rates are also skyrocketing: Less than half of all Black adults in the U.S. currently have a job, according to a New York Times analysis. And Black-owned businesses are struggling to stay afloat.
Roughly one in five African American small business owners and 10% of Latinx small business owners have temporarily closed because of the pandemic, according to a nationwide survey released in May by the nonprofit advocacy groups Color of Change and UnidosUS. And 45% of Black and Latinx small business owners said they anticipate their businesses will close within six months because of the coronavirus.
Black-owned businesses are “closing right before our eyes at a rapid pace,” James wrote on Instagram. “They are the most vulnerable and have received the least amount of economic support,” she said. Meanwhile, large retailers such as those named in the campaign thrive, she added.
“This pledge is ONE way major retailers can work on beginning to take steps towards financial equality,” James said. “I am not asking these companies to buy random products just because they’re Black owned. Of course, continue to do research and evaluate which Black owned businesses work for them, we are just asking big business to invest in the future of the Black community.”
“Many Black people choose to spend money with these businesses,” James added. “Their stores are set up in our communities, and their sponsored posts are targeted to us. If they value our money, then value us as well and show us that we are represented.”
Since the death of George Floyd, the CEOs of Target, Sephora and Walmart have issued public statements of solidarity, as has MedMen. Saks Fifth Avenue posted two black squares on Instagram, one reading “Racism and bigotry can’t be tolerated.” WholeFoods has been silent on social media since the protests began.
Yet none of these companies responded to HuffPost’s questions about steps they were taking to improve racial diversity within their businesses or in the sourcing of the products they sell.
Of the companies that did reply, none said it would commit to the 15% target.
Shopbop, owned by Amazon, directed HuffPost to its public statement on Instagram, which said the company commits to “improving our representation of the Black community across our organization, in the brands we carry, the partners we work with, and the content we produce.”
Net a Porter said it has adopted new internal commitments to improving diversity in its supply chain by supporting and stocking from more Black-owned businesses, but it did not provide information about any specific targets.
Barnes & Noble also did not provide any specific information about how it planned to make its supply chain more diverse. “We are committed to engaging in dialogue with our communities, including the publishing industry as a whole, to identify and promote books by Black writers and publishers, as well as books that can help educate and inform us all on racism and injustice,” the company told HuffPost.
A Home Depot spokesperson told HuffPost that the company has had a supplier diversity program since 2003. “In recent years, we’ve spent more than $6 billion annually with small and diverse suppliers,” the spokesperson said.
We are just asking big business to invest in the future of the Black community. Aurora James
Creary told HuffPost she is “really hopeful” about the companies that already have diversity commitments, including in their supply chains, because a new dialogue and commitment to racial diversity “becomes an extension of the work they’re already doing.”
For those companies where this is an entirely new space for them, “it’s going to be a long time before they realize positive outcomes from their statements because they have to build structure,” Creary added. “They have to create accountability. They have to persuade and convince people that the company should be doing this.”
A good place to start, Creary said, is to hire a diversity manager or a consultant to lead on this effort.
“What that means is, companies have to be willing to put some money out there, because this is not free,” Creary said. “If you haven’t decided this is important, there’s no budget. And if there’s no budget, people can’t access the resources that they need to help the company.”
Creary added: “There’s not much you can do without a budget. It tells you whether or not the company values that work.”
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