Beauty’s Age of Accountability

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The beauty industry says it is ready to enact change. The question, though, is whether its planned efforts are enough to end systemic racism.

On May 25, George Floyd died after being pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death came on the heels of that of Breonna Taylor, who was shot eight times by police officers in her own home in Louisville, Ky., and Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by residents of a neighborhood in Georgia. For a nation reeling from the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the killings were a clarion call to action.

Largely peaceful protests broke out nationwide in the weeks following Floyd’s death, and social media swelled with messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Soon enough, beauty companies joined the conversation.

Dozens of companies of all sizes — including The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., L’Oréal USA, Anastasia Beverly Hills and Biossance — shared that they had or would donate to causes standing for racial equality. The donations were initially applauded by some, though the conversation quickly turned into a demand for transparency regarding companies’ employee makeup.

Sharon Chuter, founder and chief executive officer of Uoma Beauty, launched a campaign called Pull Up for Change, which calls on corporations to reveal how many black employees make up their workforce, and specify how many black employees hold leadership positions. In just four days, it counted 70,000 Instagram followers. Facing consumer demand to respond to the campaign, beauty’s biggest players began to cave. Major businesses such as Estée Lauder, Shiseido, Revlon, Tatcha and Glossier have all revealed their numbers.

“It’s shown brands that consumers want to know,” Chuter says. “There’s always been this veil at corporations. What we’re doing is breaking down that wall and creating a whole new ecosystem of transparency and accountability. Even though it’s painful for them, they see that it’s necessary and it’s the right thing to do.”

After revealing their statistics, companies scrambled to commit to diversity initiatives and socially conscious hiring and business practices. The clamber seemed to indicate a sudden and collective revelation among beauty’s historically white-dominated companies of a failure to be diverse enough. In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, they began to map a path out of the growing racial crisis.

Some, such as Procter and Gamble — which is the largest advertiser in African-American media, according to Nielsen — moved swifter than others. Lela Coffey, vice president, hair-care portfolio and multicultural beauty, P&G North America, said because the company wasn’t “starting at ground zero,” it was well-positioned to speak out “immediately.”

“P&G has been an ardent supporter of diversity for years,” Coffey says. “We launched the My Black Is Beautiful platform more than 12 years ago to be able to empower, celebrate, value black women, and spotlight areas of bias. Our consumers of color are getting hit twice right now: once from COVID-19 and another from overt racism. It’s easier to speak up as an ally if you aren’t showing up as a date for the first time.”

Erica Culpepper, general manager, L’Oréal multicultural beauty, said that though L’Oréal has initiatives for people of color and women, right now, “the dialogue is around the black consumer.”

“Listening is the most important thing we can do right now,” Culpepper says. “Before we are so quick to act, we need to know what exactly are we acting against, and we need to hear from our employees, both the black employees and the non-black employees, in terms of what the challenges are and what the asks are. That work has started.”

L’Oréal USA president and ceo Stéphane Rinderknech and chief diversity officer Angela Guy announced in an e-mail to the company’s 12,000 employees the formation of a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory board. The board will be made up of members from inside and outside of the organization, and will be tasked with creating a “comprehensive, company-wide action plan on anti-racism,” according to a spokesperson.

Encouraging internal, company-wide discussions is a promising start to changing company culture, says Neal Semel, cofounder of Diversity Matters, an Ohio-based diversity and inclusion training consultancy.

“Within organizations, if it’s not already happening, this is the time to ensure everyone in the organization is being heard, particularly in terms of how the current few weeks and months are impacting employees,” he says. “Externally, it’s making sure you know who your clients are or who they need to be and what’s impacting them. That’s part of representation: ‘We’re selling to different people than we’re staffing with.’ We often have that disconnect of knowing what folks need or want.”

The all-too-common detachment between the audience to whom a company markets and the staff it employs is part of what inspired Chuter to launch Pull Up for Change.

“Some brands are sneaky with their marketing. They market black, they feed off of black culture and they don’t have black [employees] within the organization,” Chuter says. “It’s appalling to be appropriating, feeding off a culture, taking black influencers and putting them in front, making black consumers feel like you’re with us, when you’re not with us. You’re not putting that money back into our community, but you’re profiting off of our cool factor. That is a fundamental problem.”

Racist errors have long plagued the marketing efforts of big beauty companies. Those missteps seem to be systematic of a failure to hire a workforce that is diverse enough — and made to feel comfortable enough to speak out.

When beauty enthusiasts-turned-entrepreneurs Amanda E. Johnson and KJ Miller began building the team of Mented Cosmetics, hiring a diverse employee base was fundamental. It was just one of “a lot of checks and balances” the company has since built, Johnson says.

“We have a diverse team across every department — product development, marketing, operations,” Johnson says. “It would be strange that a product was released to market that was touched by so many diverse hands that somehow, something got missed or some message was lost in translation. We’re constantly bringing in other voices: customer voices in the product development phase, influencer voices in the marketing phase. Both of those groups of people are extremely vocal.

“Companies that say things get lost, it’s either because the people internally who are actually able to make decisions aren’t the right people to make those decisions, or they’re not letting in enough different voices to actually hear a dissenting opinion,” Johnson continues. “Either way, it’s not a one-off issue.”

Coffey says that in addition to employing product formulators of diverse backgrounds — including black women scientists “with a multitude of hair types” who work on P&G’s multicultural hair portfolio — the company’s diversity-minded outlook applies to outsourced talent.

“For my multicultural brands, we are using agencies that are black-owned or black-led to make sure we are connecting with those partners in the way that we should be and making sure we’re sensing where the consumer is going,” she says. One such agency is Egami Group, which manages the creative for P&G’s My Black Is Beautiful campaign.

Jazmin Alvarez, founder and chief curator of Pretty Well Beauty, a black-owned clean beauty curation web site, says that marketing — specifically, the imagery she uses for Pretty Well Beauty’s online platform — is a big part of her overall strategy.

“When women are going shopping, they want to see some reflection of them in the marketing,” says Alvarez, who is an alum of Calvin Klein and Condé Nast. She worked on the production and casting for the digital launch of Fenty Beauty in 2017, and launched Pretty Well Beauty two years later.

“I’m still fine-tuning my strategy, but in terms of the types of visuals, whether on social media or e-mail newsletters, if I use a model, she’s going to be a person of color, or someone who’s racially ambiguous,” Alvarez says. “If she is white, she’s got a gap tooth, she’s got freckles, or curly, red hair. There has to be something a little different than what you’re used to seeing because beauty isn’t a one-size-fits-all. There are so many different colors and sizes and so many different looks.”

In addition to accounting for a growing portion of the overall U.S. population, black consumers are big spenders in beauty. Black consumers spent $152 million — nearly one-quarter of the total spend — on women’s fragrances in 2019, according to a report by Nielsen. African-Americans outspend the total market on personal soap and bath needs by nearly 19 percent, accounting for $573.6 million of the $3 billion market, according to the report.

And yet, black consumers are underrepresented both in marketing and in the employee makeup of beauty’s biggest companies.

“Representation continues to be an issue,” says Esi Eggleston Bracey, executive vice president and chief operating officer, personal care in North America for Unilever, in a statement to Beauty Inc. “As an industry, we have to change our images, diversify and change how our brains have been programmed to what has been traditionally considered beautiful. Brands have an extraordinary opportunity to evolve how we reach, impact, serve and keep people engaged. We must make a more concerted effort to bring women of color into every step of the process.”

Unilever, she says, is “taking the steps necessary to ensure our workforce better reflects the communities we serve.” The company has a “zero-tolerance policy on intolerance” that extends beyond Unilever employees to the suppliers, customers and partners with which it works.

The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. made public commitments to diversify its workforce after employees petitioned to remove Ronald Lauder, a son of founder Estée, from the company’s board. The petition said during his time on the board, Ronald had donated at least $1.75 million in support of President Trump — a financial commitment that stood in stark contrast to the company’s donation of $1 million to causes that support the black community.

After the petition was picked up in the press, Lauder increased the amount to $10 million.

Lauder reported in response to Chuter’s campaign that it and its brands collectively have a 12 percent black workforce, with 14 percent of black employees at the executive officer level. MAC Cosmetics alone has an 18 percent black employee base, with an executive leadership team that is 17 percent black.

Lauder said it would hire more black employees at all levels over the next five years. It also committed to double sourcing from black-owned businesses over the next three years.

In response to Chuter’s campaign, Ulta Beauty, which carries Uoma Beauty, revealed that black corporate associates account for 6 percent of its workforce. Black leaders make up 13 percent of Ulta’s executive team leadership, while black board members account for 18 percent of the board.

Dave Kimbell, president of Ulta Beauty, said in a statement to WWD Beauty Inc, that the company is both evolving its retail assortment and making efforts to diversify its workforce.

“We continue to grow a portfolio of black-owned brands to aid our mission in being beauty at its most inclusive,” Kimbell said. “Through our Diversity and Inclusion Champions Network and supporting programs, we leverage unique perspectives, experiences, backgrounds and talents to foster an environment that celebrates the beautiful possibilities in all. We provide training and education around unconscious bias, encourage topical conversations and competency building.”

Shortly after Brother Vellies founder Aurora James called on businesses to take a 15 Percent Pledge, Sephora accepted, committing to dedicate at least 15 percent of its shelf space to black-owned companies. That commitment doesn’t specify how Sephora will divide the 15 percent among in-store beauty categories.

“Ultimately, this commitment is about more than the prestige products on our shelves,” Artemis Patrick, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer of Sephora, said in a statement. “It starts with a long-term plan diversifying our supply chain and building a system that creates a better platform for black-owned brands to grow, while ensuring black voices help shape our industry.”

Sephora also said it would use its internal Accelerate incubation program to cultivate female founders of color, and would “provide connections to and support from funders and the venture capitalist community.”

Dedicating 15 percent of shelf space to black-owned companies is a start. Still, that percentage is disproportionately small, especially when considering retailers such as The Brown Beauty Co-op, a black-owned, self-funded cooperative based in Washington, D.C., that only sells brands by black and POC founders. The cooperative, which cofounder Amaya Smith said has been called “The Black Sephora,” currently carries 50 black-owned brands.

“No knock to the beauty supply model, which is what traditionally exists in the black community,” Smith says, “we haven’t had a luxury store that focused on our products.”

Prior to Sephora’s commitment to the 15 Percent Pledge, Smith and cofounder Kimberly Smith penned an open letter to the retailer, whose new location in Washington, D.C., shares a neighborhood with The Brown Beauty Co-op. In the letter, Amaya Smith and Kimberly Smith called out Sephora for its lack of black leadership, which is 6 percent in the U.S., according to numbers Sephora revealed as part of the Pull Up for Change campaign.

The Brown Beauty Co-op’s open letter also called into question Sephora’s diversity and inclusion efforts, which the retailer launched after the singer SZA tweeted that she had been racially profiled at a Sephora store in Calabasas, Calif.

“Unfortunately, discrimination happened to some really famous people and because they are famous, we found out about it, but this happens to a lot of black and brown women in Sephora,” Amaya Smith says.

“Black women outspend our white counterparts, but you wouldn’t know that by going into these stores, viewing their marketing, seeing their product launches,” Kimberly Smith says. “We just want to see ourselves reflected in the way that we’re being consumers.”

Consumer demand for transparency and racial equity are driving beauty’s collective awakening to the ways in which the industry has perpetuated systemic racism, whether conscious or unconscious. Though some companies have outlined ways they plan to move forward, the remaining questions, which are more relevant than ever during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, are of time and accountability.

To create lasting change, companies must commit long term and give regular updates on their progress, Chuter says.

“We’re a public forum that will continue giving the public updates,” she says. “This is not a one-off, pull up exercise. All public corporations, this should be part of their annual reporting. They report diversity, but they have to break black employment out of ‘people of color.’”

Change, Culpepper says, is dependent on corporations’ ability to “listen, trust, act and invest.”

“You have to put your money where your mouth is and you have to invest, not just short term, but long term,” she says. “It has to be a true commitment. It’s not to show up and say, ‘this is the trend of the moment, so we’re going to jump on the bandwagon and make a donation.’”

One way to ensure accountability is by developing key performance indicators along with a timeline for measuring progress.

“We need to establish some real KPIs amongst the organization, and it may vary for different organizations or industries,” Culpepper says. “What exactly are the KPIs, both external and internal, because we know we have consumer challenges, but we also have internal challenges that we need to address and solve for. What is the investment that is required in order to address those KPIs and then what is the timeline? We have to put ourselves on a timeline and hold ourselves accountable to delivering what we said we were going to deliver by the time we said we would deliver it.”

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