Aerial view of Black Lives Matter mural at Penn and Plymouth

Photo on Flickr by August Schwerdfeger is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Welcome to this week’s edition of In the News! This week, we look at how brands have been making good (and more often not making good) on their commitments to address inappropriate behavior and a lack of diversity behind the scenes, consider the deeply problematic colorism that runs rampant in global markets, and revisit the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

Business & Retail

As we recently came upon a year since the murder of George Floyd, the global eruption of Black Lives Matter protests, and the consumer movements that followed, many industry influencers and commentators took the moment to reflect on whether progress has been made. Writing for PORTER magazine, Marjon Carlos poignantly examines her personal experience of the past year, balancing the emotional trauma of current events with the sudden demand for her creative work. She also observes, “A year later, I can feel this energy lagging, though. In my industry alone, I have noticed that those who were previously ‘canceled’ last summer are back and working.”

Last June, hundreds of brands and publications were called out for their long histories of problematic behavior and lack of diversity behind the scenes. Many companies made performative statements, but some also made ambitious commitments. Fortune reported a total of $50 billion was pledged towards racial equity by U.S. companies (across all industries) last year – but that only $250 million has actually been spent or devoted to specific initiatives. And while over the past year more than 20 companies have signed the 15 Percent Pledge, most recently MatchesFashion and JCrew, founder Aurora James explained to CNBC that “A lot of companies say ‘We’re afraid to commit to the pledge because we’re afraid to fail.’ […] Because racial justice is such a complex and nuanced conversation, a lot of CEOs and corporations in general are paralyzed into non-action.”

But at the very least, the consumer-driven call-outs and demands for accountability over the last year have unlocked a newly candid dialogue around issues of racial equity and social justice in the corporate landscape. Marjon Carlos explains that although the momentum around brand commitments may be slowing, she feels a sense of agency and empowerment in advocating for herself: “I have learned to vouch for myself in ways I’ve never done before. If the system refuses to protect me or create space for me, I will do it for myself and for others who look like me. I will take up as much room as I need. I will ask for more money, more time to rest, more pleasure, more joy. I know fully my worth. My friends and I speak about this self-awareness a lot and, without this reckoning, I don’t think we would have reconciled that for ourselves. And that is a kind of progress that actually feels sustainable.” 

Finally, this progress may have a far-reaching impact even beyond the Black Lives Matter movement, with consumers now demanding companies take a stand on issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict. While brands might have been able to avoid these issues before, the past year has seen a major shift in expectations. As noted by Dartmouth Business School Professor Paul A. Argenti, “I don’t think that Gen-Z is going to suddenly stop caring about these issues, and leave you alone.”

Business & Retail

Also on our radar:

British brand, Timbuktu, is accused of cultural appropriation for its trademarking of ‘Yoruba,’ the name and language of one of the largest ethnic groups in west Africa.

The term ‘A-Beauty’ has emerged to denote the rise of beauty brands emphasizing ingredients sourced across Africa, like marula, moringa, and baobab.

Gap Inc. has partnered with Harlem’s Fashion Row for its new Closing the Gap initiative, contributing a total of $510,000 in awards for fashion departments at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Leaders from these departments can apply for these grants through June 8th.

Design & Imagemaking

In an article published last week, Business of Fashion explores whether the inclusion and diversity movements gaining traction in the U.S. will gain traction globally, specifically in Asian markets. When it comes to marketing beauty across Asia, the focus on skin lightening is a key issue deeply rooted in colorism. The market research experts quoted in this piece advise that traditional beauty standards are “unlikely to change in the near term.” But brand leaders are more optimistic. Peach & Lily founder Alicia Yoon argues that “attitudes in South Korea are starting to shift” towards more real, authentic conversations and imagery. And as U.S.-based Kopari enters the Chinese market, founder Susan Kim emphasizes that the brand will continue to use the same diverse and inclusive visual identity globally with the aim of “normalizing that instead of being fearful that it’s not going to resonate with the consumer.”

Business of Fashion notes that, “nascent movements to challenge historical definitions of beauty are growing in China, Japan and South Korea but have not yet gained mainstream momentum as they have in the U.S.” But as we’ve seen here over the past year, that latent demand may be unleashed by consumers at any moment. The Black Lives Matter movement has had rippling global effects, and younger consumers around the world are likely to continue advocating for change. For instance, Japanese brand Kao announced the removal of the terms “whitening” and “lightening” from its products, and after years of criticism, the surging consumer backlash in June 2020 forced Unilever to finally address the problematic nature of it’s ‘Fair & Lovely’ skin lightening cream. The corporation changed the name to ‘Glow & Lovely’ – only to face another backlash. While this superficial name change might have satisfied consumers a few years ago, they are now demanding real action.

Fair and Lovely - Billboard for Skin-Whitening Cream - Chittagong - Bangladesh

Photo on Flickr by Adam Jones is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

But the fact remains that skin-lightening products are an enormous market – valued at $8.3 billion in 2017 – with popularity across Africa and Asia. The popularity of these products is a consequence of cultural racism and colorism, “rooted in a racial stratification that goes back to colonialism,” that is deeply embedded within global beauty standards. As Anita Benson, a Nigerian dermatologist and founder of the NGO Embrace Melanin Initiative, tells Allure, “To change the practice, one must first change the perception about Black skin.” And while consumer driven movements have helped bring these issues to the forefront, brands have a key role to play in shifting the narratives they are marketing and centering women with darker skin. In a piece for The Conversation, Michigan State University Professor Ronald Hall, who has studied behavioral science and colorism, explains that, “public education and activism on this issue must prevail to protect the health and self-esteem of women of color.”

Design & Imagemaking

Also on our radar:

A new agency, based in Canada, is dedicated to empowering Indigenous models and working to increase representation in the industry.

Sustainability & Labor Issues

In our previous issue, we mentioned the impending expiration of the landmark Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was passed in response to the Rana Plaza Disaster in 2013. Last week, The New York Times reported that the brands and unions involved, unable to reach a consensus, agreed to a last minute extension allowing negotiations to continue until August 31.

The future of the Accord remains at risk, with brands and factory owners lobbying for a new, less restrictive agreement that is not legally binding. Meanwhile, workers and unions are fighting to extend and expand the original Accord, arguing that a significant proportion of factories in Bangladesh remain unsafe even despite the progress made over the past few years.

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Sustainability & Labor Issues

Also on our radar:

A recent report by Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and Arisa, a workers’ rights NGO, investigated forced labor and problematic working conditions in Indian spinning mills that produce yarn and fabrics for international companies including Gap, Ikea, NEXT, Carrefour, and Tesco.

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis in India and associated lockdown restrictions have forced many factories to close or operate at reduced capacity. India’s Noida Apparel Export Cluster (NAEC) President, Lalit Thukral, estimates a loss of at least 20% of business with international buyers shifting orders to other countries.

Dress Politics

This week, Louis Vuitton was called out by Diet Prada for their appropriation of the Palestinian keffiyeh, and the story was later picked up by news outlets like The Independent. The brand is selling a “Monogram Keffiyeh Stole,” emblazoned with the LV logo, for $708.

Many commenters expressed offense regarding this appropriative design, particularly in consideration of the cloth’s symbolic relevance to ongoing struggles of the Palestinian people. Although Western appropriation of the keffiyeh is not new, its relevance to the current moment of crisis in Palestine has drawn global attention. Our last edition of In The News offers a deeper discussion of the complex history, sociopolitical significance, and cultural evolution of the keffiyeh.