Brand Accountability And Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter is not a trend. The fight against racism is not a trend. Holding brands accountable is also, not a trend. It is a movement and it is necessary. 

In the three weeks since the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers, the world has been shaken to its core. Protesters have taken to the streets in hundreds of cities across the United States and beyond to stand against racism and police violence.  A unified message has rung out, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Enough is Enough.’ The world watched as protesters were sprayed down with tear gas and rubber bullets, while President Trump encouraged militarised force to be used on civilians in the name of law and order. In Ireland, thousands gathered around the US Embassy in Dublin to show solidarity with protestors in the US and to raise awareness about the racial injustices, such as Direct Provision, that exist at home.  

There has been a parallel reckoning in the business world.  Lists of Black-owned businesses to support have been widely circulated. Prominent social media influencers have opted to #sharethemicnow. There has been a call to purchase books by Black authors to send a message to the publishing industry and ‘Black Out’ bestsellers lists.  Meanwhile, employees across many different industries have come forward with their stories of discrimination at work. Last week, Adam Rapoport, stepped down from his position of Editor in Chief at Bon Appetite as a photo of him in a brownface Halloween costume circulated online. This sparked a conversation on the larger toxic culture the magazine had allowed and prompted employees to commit to a complete overhaul of company practices. At the same time, prominent editors from publications such as The New York Times and Refinery29 have resigned amid similar criticisms. In the beauty world, Sharon Chuter, founder of Uoma Beauty, launched the trending challenge, #PullUpOrShutUp in response to what she saw as performative social media activism from many brands. She called on all brands to share how many Black employees they had, more specifically in senior leadership positions. Within a matter of days, dozens and dozens of brands delivered full transparency on these figures and made action plans for bringing about positive change in their business. L’Oreal has rehired, Munroe Bergdorf, a British Black transgender model who the company had previously fired in 2017 after she spoke openly about racism. Munroe herself describes an ‘open and productive’ conversation with the president Delphine Viguier who expressed regret for the way the model was treated and found a productive way to make amends.   

Yet, there are still many brands whose commitment to anti-racism and inclusivity have started and ended with a black square for #blackouttuesday or a generic statement of support.  Zara, for example, simply issued the vague phrase ‘We Stand for Equality.’ Compare that to Ben and Jerry’s unambiguous manifesto on ‘Dismantling White Supremacy’. Both McDonald’s and Amazon have proclaimed their support for Black Lives Matter specifically. However, as their own employees have been forced to strike for safe working conditions during the pandemic, people have begun to question the sincerity of these claims. It has prompted many to ask, what about the lives of your Black employees? Many brands in fast-food or fast-fashion, whose business practices are so intertwined with the exploitation of a cheap labour force, face similar scepticism.  

We live in a world where consumers now expect brands to take a stand on social issues that are important to them—where brands understand it is often in their financial best interest to do so. However, people are no longer content to take these gestures of goodwill at face value. They want to see meaningful commitments. Especially when activists are pouring their energy into creating lasting change, and when racism and white supremacy continue to have very real and sometimes deadly consequences for the people who endure them. In the wake of the BLM protests, many brands have announced large charitable donations. Still, this addresses only a part of their responsibility. Brands must put in the work to address inequity at every level of their business, interrogate how they have fallen short in the past and how they can make amends now.  What barriers are preventing your employees from having equal opportunities to progress? Where might the blind spots in your recruitment process be? What mentorship programs could you enact for the next generation of people in your role? What good can you do in the community in the long term? Brands must hold themselves accountable first and foremost. They must come to value their Black customers for more than their spending power and their Black employees for more than the optics of diversity. They must take another look at their human centric values and their sweeping mission statements and find honest ways to live up to them. This work, however, will not be immediate. It may not earn social media kudos either, but it is the most important work to be done.  Enough is enough, it is time for change.