As retailers like Sephora begin delivering on diversity pledges, experts say ‘much remains to be seen’ about the industry’s newest efforts to help minority-owned businesses

As retailers like Sephora begin delivering on diversity pledges, experts say 'much remains to be seen' about the industry's newest efforts to help minority-owned businesses thumbnail

fenty beauty

A display from a “Sephora loves Fenty Beauty by Rihanna” store event in Milan.

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Sephora loves Fenty Beauty by Rihanna



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  • Following national protests over the summer in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, many retailers made public promises to improve diversity and inclusion practices, but only some are starting to deliver on results. 
  • Sephora on Wednesday published findings from an extensive study on racial bias, along with a list of updated policies informed by the findings. Still, efforts among other companies “remain to be seen,” said Damian Bender, general manager of the multicultural digital media company B Code Media.
  • Experts told Insider that efforts like the 15 Percent Pledge fail to account for the lack of resources still needed by many small, minority-owned business owners who are still struggling to get on the shelves of national retail chains. 
  • “We need these brands to not just be in shelf space. We want continuous shelf space,” Jade Sykes, cofounder of the non-profit Diversify Retail, told Insider. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

While a slew of retailers have made public declarations to improve diversity and inclusion across their companies, experts say there is still significant work to be done to push pledges beyond lip service to make lasting change. 

More than six months after protests erupted around the country, following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, brands are working to deliver on promises made to improve equality in the workplace and across the retail industry. Sephora, for example, published the results of an extensive study on racial bias in retail on Wednesday, along with a coinciding list of updated new policies informed by the findings.

The beauty company is also one of many brands participating in the 15 Percent Pledge, a call to action for retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands created in the wake of the protests. 

“We know it will be a journey, but we’re committed to holding ourselves accountable to this mission for the benefit of our clients, our employees, our communities, and the retail industry at large,” Jean-André Rougeot, president and CEO of Sephora Americas, said in a statement.

Read more: Savage x Fenty’s co-president shares what businesses can do right now to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace and across their products

Still, progress remains sluggish for some retailers, experts told Insider. Other businesses have also failed to account for barriers facing minority businesses — such as supply chain and infrastructural scaling costs that leave minority-owned businesses struggling to get on the shelves being offered by retailers.

Sephora

A sign on a closed Sephora store during companywide racial bias training in June 2019.

Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images



The push for ‘continuous shelf space’ 

Jade Sykes, cofounder and president of Diversify Retail — a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the representation and visibility of minority-owned businesses in the retail industry — said that while diversity initiatives by corporations are vital to change, campaigns like the 15 Percent Pledge highlight deeper institutional disparities in retail.  

Without the assistance needed for the significant upfront costs to increase production and manufacturing, small companies may get swallowed up by supply chain expenses, ultimately preventing both the brand and its retail partners from reaching diversity goals, Sykes said. 

“We love the call to action, but we’re really frightened by the weight of what it means,” she said. “For a lot of brands, yes, they are giving you the opportunity and they’re offering you a purchase order to buy your products, but you’re still responsible for the raw goods, for producing it, and delivering to the retailer.”

While in some cases, a large retailer may extend a line of credit to a brand, Sykes said there are often specific stipulations to obtain them, such as order size and volume. As a result, many small business take on high-interest bank loans that leave them swimming in debt, an issue Diversity Retail is working to prevent among high-risk minority-owned brands.

Aurora James — founder of the 15 Percent Pledge and creative director of the fashion brand Brother Vellies — echoed Sykes and said that while the barriers to inclusive representation are pervasive, the pledge has helped start the conversation of holding retailers accountable to dedicating purchasing power to Black business owners.

While James acknowledged that there is “more work to be done,” the organization is working with minority-owned brands in the meantime to connect them with existing training and accelerators programs designed to help entrepreneurs. 

“Until major retailers step up and dedicate shelf space to Black-owned businesses, we’ll continue to lack equitable market share for Black business owners,” James wrote in an email to Insider. “We clearly have a long way to go to before fully dismantling the systemic inequities that plague our economy, but the 15 Percent Pledge has brought retailers, corporations, and business leaders to the table to offer clear, viable opportunities to invest in Black businesses, with tailored plans to meet their needs, and the needs of small businesses.” 

For Diversify Retail — which Sykes cofounded in August 2020 with DeAnna McIntosh after McIntosh saw an opportunity to consult retailers looking to fulfill diversity pledges — the goal is to provide both monetary and educational tools for small businesses so that partnerships with large retailers become more sustainable and have longevity.

In the long-term, Sykes said she would like efforts like the 15 Percent Pledge and Sephora’s racial bias in retail study to be more than just a flash in the pan in response to a major national event. She specifically cited the common practice among major retailers to find Black-owned suppliers in the fall in order to fulfill orders for Black History Month displays, but then neglecting to seek them out the rest of the year. 

“We need these brands to not just be in shelf space,” she said. “We want continuous shelf space. We want grants constantly growing and increasing ownership within the minority community so that they can have businesses and opportunities to scale on these levels without it being a highlight. We want it normalized.”

‘The change we need is a systemic one’

Damian Bender, general manager of B Code Media at H Code — a multicultural digital media company focused on increasing inclusivity in advertising — said that it has been encouraging to see retailers make progress toward inclusion, adding that his own company has witnessed a “real shift in interest and willingness to address to issues of racial inequality.” 

“Retailers are open and eager for recommendations and solutions with responses that run the gamut from launching new inclusivity campaigns, creating challenging content, or developing community outreach programs,” he told Insider. “All of which take time and the ability to continually check in and actively listen to the multicultural community they are trying to reach.”

Bender noted that these efforts vary substantially in both content and scope.

“Public statements supporting BLM were the starting point and the steps that followed vary considerably,” he said. “Some have chosen to mount efforts at addressing marginalization and inequity within their organization, while others elect to activate or highlight the community outreach and support they provide.” 

Ultimately, Benders said it is “simply too soon to tell” if the promises made by retailers this summer will come to fruition and have a lasting impact. 

“The change we need is a systemic one, where processes and approaches to supporting the community that consumes a product become embedded in the business itself and thus have lasting positive impact,” he said. “Perhaps the correct question is whether retailers are reaching out for guidance and expert help to ensure that they are enabling long-term change?”


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