The beauty industry profits off black women. Now black women are fighting for accountability.
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The beauty industry profits off black women. Now black women are fighting for accountability.

At Revlon, only 5 percent of employees at the director level or above are black. At Sephora, just 6 percent of leadership roles are filled by black people. L’Oréal, a global company with 86,000 employees, counts 8 percent who identify as black at the executive level. No black people hold leadership roles at Glossier. And at Lime Crime, there are no black employees at the brand’s corporate headquarters at all.

Just a few weeks ago, it would have been nearly impossible to get these numbers from popular beauty companies. But over the past two weeks, they’ve provided them willingly, due to intense pressure from activists within the beauty industry and the consumers who buy from the brands. And not only that, some of these companies are making concrete commitments for the first time to improve their diversity.

Pull Up for Change, the initiative that was the catalyst for the sudden transparency on employment numbers, launched on Instagram on June 3 and has almost 120,000 followers. Its founder, Sharon Chuter, formerly worked in corporate roles at L’Oréal and at LVMH with Benefit Cosmetics. She now has her own makeup brand, Uoma.

“I had never worked in a company with enough black people. I didn’t know what it felt like to have another black colleague in the office. That was why I started my own brand,” Chuter says. Uoma launched in spring 2019 and was picked up by Ulta (which has 13 percent black-identifying people on the leadership team) a few months later.

Chuter launched the Pull Up for Change rallying cry after becoming frustrated seeing the seemingly superficial messages of support and MLK quotes beauty brands were posting on social media. The message, which challenged brands to post the racial breakdown of their teams along with commitments to improve, was amplified by popular beauty influencers like Jackie Aina. So far, more than 200 brands have participated, and the initiative has expanded beyond beauty companies to brands like Levi’s, Everlane, and even Allure magazine, which is what Chuter was hoping would happen. On the Pull Up page, the brands are thanked for their transparency, even when numbers are dismal.

“This is not a witch hunt,” says Chuter.If you have not been employing black people, just say now, ‘We know, yes, we do profit from the black community, and we do have an obligation to hire black people.’”

The protests over police brutality and the increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement have served to also highlight that black citizens haven’t been given equitable economic opportunities. The beauty industry employment statistics shared by companies underscore this starkly. But demand for accountability and equity in hiring is now happening in all sectors of US society, in a way that feels more urgent.

“Corporate America has failed black America,” Darren Walker, the black president of the Ford Foundation and a board member at PepsiCo, told the New York Times, which noted that only 40 percent of companies are “transparent about the gender and racial makeup of their employees.” Industries now are facing increased pressure to hire more black people, especially for leadership roles where they will have decision-making power, with the hope of ensuring structural change. Now, institutions like the media, the NFL, and even the equestrian world are grappling with questions of diversity and racial inequality. (This includes Vox Media, Vox’s parent company, which employed 8 percent black or African American people as of 2019 statistics.)

The conversation has been simmering for a long time in the beauty industry. It’s now boiled over.

Black consumers buy a lot of beauty products, but brands and retailers don’t make it easy

Beauty is a $532 billion industry, and one in which black shoppers enthusiastically spend a lot of money. Black people are about 13 to 15 percent of the US population, according to US census data and other sources. But they spend more than that proportionally in categories like fragrances, bath products, men’s toiletries, and “ethnic” hair and beauty aides, according to a 2019 Nielsen report. (As a classification, “ethnic” is falling out of favor in the industry.) The black hair care industry alone is worth more than $2.5 billion.

Brands and companies have actively marketed to black communities, sometimes to predatory and detrimental effect. Some products with the potential to contain dangerous chemicals are more aggressively marketed to women of color, according to commentary published in 2017 in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Over the decades, companies have sold products like hair straighteners, skin lighteners, and odor-masking products disproportionately to black consumers. Some of these have been found to contain potentially hazardous substances like formaldehyde, mercury, and phthalates.

Then there’s shopping. Beauty product shopping, at least in pre-coronavirus times, was an activity mostly done in stores. Sales online have been growing steadily, but generally people like shopping for beauty products in person, an activity that can be fraught for black shoppers. In 2019, both Ulta and Sephora, the two biggest beauty retailers in the US, faced accusations of racial profiling in their stores. After the singer SZA announced on social media that a Sephora employee had called security on her, the chain shut down for one hour nationwide to conduct diversity training. Ulta also faced accusations of racial profiling, after employees said the company actively encouraged it. The retailer said in a statement at the time: “We stand for equality, inclusivity and acceptance and strive to create a space that is welcoming to all. That is why we make it a practice to offer our associates ongoing training on diversity and inclusion.”

And just last week, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS all announced they were no longer going to lock up beauty products marketed to black consumers, a practice common for decades. “Retailers are rethinking their merchandising strategies. … While trying to undo discriminatory policies, they also realize they can’t afford to turn off multicultural customers who are big spenders of beauty products,” wrote the Associated Press.

Then there’s the fact that when black women go looking for products for their skin and hair, they are often hard-pressed to find them. The majority of non-specialty products have always been centered on the needs of white people, with black customers an afterthought, if considered at all.

Dana Oliver, the beauty director at Yahoo, says she was invited on an overseas press trip with a hair care brand, but before she accepted, she asked if there were products appropriate for her hair and stylists experienced with her hair type. She was assured there were, but when she got there, that wasn’t the case. “I had to explain and teach these people how to style my hair. I couldn’t laugh it off because I tried to establish it before even taking this trip,” she says. “I was having to educate brands, where they should be doing the work themselves.”

Makeup is a problem too. Foundation shades for major makeup brands, with the exception of a few like MAC, historically have tended to skew light. The shade “nude” has always been reserved for light colors, a default favoring white consumers. And when brands do make an extended range, retailers won’t always carry all of them.

Rihanna changed that for mainstream brands in 2017 with the launch of Fenty Beauty, which included 40 shades of foundation with plenty of options on the deeper side of the spectrum. Suddenly, brands began clamoring to keep up, launching their own 40 or 50 shades of foundation, what some called the “Fenty effect.”

Chuter says that some brands’ darker shades tend to be off, and she suspects they aren’t really tested on the skin tones they’re meant for. She says when she was formulating her makeup in Italy (the epicenter for makeup pigments), she had to recruit women off the streets to try her foundation because local modeling agencies could not provide darker-skinned women. But Fenty felt like the beginning of change in the industry, and definitely raised awareness.

“Pull up or shut up”

When the protests over George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police intensified, brands in every sector started posting messages of solidarity, which many people saw as hollow. In the beauty industry, these pat posts were met with an immediate outcry, as influencers, consumers, and the anonymous beauty watchdog collective Estée Laundry started posting examples of non-diverse workforces and brands whose leadership exhibited ”problematic” behavior.

Lush Cosmetics, the UK-based maker of soap and bath bombs, drew ire after pictures of its CEO distributing products to police in the UK started circulating. Glamsquad, a company that employs many women of color as makeup artists and hairstylists who make house calls, faced a revolt on its Instagram page amid allegations of racist behavior.

Then there is Ronald Lauder, a son of matriarch Estée and a board member at the company, which owns multiple brands including Clinique, MAC, Bobbi Brown, and La Mer. He donated $1.6 million to the Trump campaign, prompting employees to start a petition to remove him from the board, which the company has not done. The company did say in a statement: “This week, several employees asked whether a single member of the Lauder family and our Board, represents the views of our company. The answer is no. While we respect everyone’s right to make their own political decisions, no single individual represents the views of our company.”

A handful of global conglomerates own the majority of popular beauty brands — Estée Lauder, LVMH, Coty, Unilever, Shiseido, L’Oréal, P&G. Chuter wanted to draw attention to the people who make the decisions about shade ranges and the images you see in ads and who ultimately hold the purse strings. “People are starting to understand now that all the brands are owned by the same people. When you don’t have a black person on a board, it’s not affecting one brand; it’s affecting 15 brands,” she says.

The trade paper WWD released a list of the major companies’ C-suites and boards, noting how many nonwhite executives and board members each had. L’Oréal had zero on its board, and one on the executive committee. LVMH had none in either. Others varied from one to five out of 12 to 20-plus people, but the paper did not break down how many of these were black.

Chuter’s Pull Up for Change challenge zoomed in even further, asking brands to “pull up or shut up,” which means “show me, don’t tell me.” Chuter asked companies specifically how many black executives and employees they had. The results were eye-opening.

The beginning of accountability in the beauty industry

The mea culpas came fast and furiously to the Pull Up hashtag, as consumers and beauty influencers encouraged brands to participate. Kylie Cosmetics, Coty, and Glossier, among others, gave their numbers. They are still imperfect admissions, because it’s not clear how brands counted and categorized their employees, it says nothing about their internal culture, and it doesn’t reveal if there are pay gaps. But it’s a start.

It’s also complicated. Fenty Beauty, while founded by Rihanna, is a part of Kendo Brands, a beauty incubator ultimately owned by LVMH, the French conglomerate that owns Dior, Sephora, and countless fashion and fragrance brands. Neither the brand nor its parent entities have “pulled up” their employment statistics for the challenge.

It’s a nuanced situation, because LVMH has given the singer an opportunity that few black celebrities have had in beauty in the past, while white celebrities have landed seven-figure beauty deals to front brands for decades. Rihanna’s (unknown) ownership stake is likely lucrative, and she became LVMH’s first black female designer when the luxury Fenty fashion brand launched in May 2019. These deals give her clout and some power in an industry that has largely ignored black women. Fenty Beauty has been influential by forcing other brands to confront their shade limitations and by providing shades that work for a wider variety of skin tones. But LVMH has zero people of color on its board or executive committee.

Fenty Beauty did announce it was “supporting” the NAACP and “partnering” with Rihanna’s charity, the Clara Lionel Foundation, which funds education and emergency response initiatives. A spokesperson confirmed in an email it was a monetary donation. The representative did not address queries about whether it will respond to the Pull Up challenge.

“It’s been disappointing that Fenty didn’t pull up. They want to get our black dollars, but they don’t want to employ our black people,” says Chuter, who acknowledges that what Fenty did was groundbreaking.Rihanna is getting a cut, but [Bernard] Arnault [LVMH’s chair and CEO] is getting all the money. He’s the third-richest man in the world. Rihanna is not the third-richest woman in the world. … Rihanna is amazing, she’s a pillar of our community, she’s an activist, she’s an amazing human being. And that’s why I’m so angry that LVMH is doing this to her.”

Ella Gorgla and Cara Sabin, both beauty executives with about two decades of experience each, are hoping to help change the percentages of black decision-makers in these companies. They founded 25 Black Women in Beauty on Juneteenth last year as a platform to help place black women executives in leadership roles at beauty companies. It offers support and networking in the form of groups and events for professionals, as well as a résumé book for companies looking to hire and job listings on the site.

“Regardless of our education or where we stood and the experience and stories we brought with us, we felt marginalized. We are carrying the emotional weight of being a black woman in beauty and we felt it was getting too heavy,” says Gorgla of starting the group, for which she serves as CEO. “It’s an important time for the industry, and my hope is big beauty companies and small brands that don’t have the level of diversity you would expect to see realize that now is the time to make those changes.”

How brands have pledged to change

In the first few days of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, some beauty brands stepped in immediately to support organizations monetarily. Glossier was one of the first, donating $500,000 to organizations like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter and committing another $500,000 in grants to black-owned beauty businesses. Others were more noncommittal. Model and transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf called out L’Oréal for posting the message: “Speaking Out Is Worth It,” a play on its “Because I’m Worth It” tagline. The brand had fired the model in 2017 after she posted on social media decrying white supremacy in the aftermath of the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally that resulted in a neo-Nazi killing an anti-racist protester with his car. The brand has now apologized and hired Bergdorf to sit on its diversity and inclusion board.

Estée Lauder originally committed to donating $1 million, but employees, as part of the backlash against Ronald Lauder, were not happy with this number and pressed the company to donate more. The Estée Lauder Companies has since committed to donating $5 million this year and another $5 million over the next two years. It’s also made a commitment to “reach US population parity for our Black employees in the next five years,” ensure product development addresses diverse consumer needs, double recruits from historically black colleges and universities for entry-level jobs, require more diverse candidates for executive positions, and increase the use of black creative talent like photographers and models.

Lauder’s was one of the most comprehensive plans, and other beauty brands have made commitments to hiring, but some have just acknowledged they need to do better without offering specific action plans. Chuter and Pull Up for Change plan to follow up with all the participating brands in six months to see what progress has been made. Chuter also hopes to launch a site or plug-in that can alert consumers as they’re shopping which brands have “pulled up.”

“Some brands are recognizing that they need to educate themselves and do the work in order to become a true ally,” says a longtime beauty publicist who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly about the matter. “I do think some brands do not view this moment as the sea change that it is. There is a sense among some that things will go back to business as usual. We are trying to show them that you have to incorporate anti-racism practices into the course of your daily business.”

There’s also a focus on black-owned brands, which are funded by investors and sold at retailers at a mere fraction of those owned by white founders. Aurora James, a fashion designer, launched the 15 Percent Pledge, whose mission is to get retailers across fashion and beauty to commit to carrying at least 15 percent black-owned brands. Sephora has just announced that it will do so. Ulta has not, but Monica Arnaudo, chief merchandising officer, said in an emailed statement:

We are proud to carry many Black-owned brands including UOMA Beauty, Juvia’s Place, Beauty Bakerie, PATTERN, Mixed Chicks and TGIN, among others. As a retailer where beauty brands can grow and be discovered, we take our responsibility to evolve our assortment to ensure it is diverse and reflective of our guests very seriously. Our work is not done and we look forward to adding more Black-owned brands to our product offering to further these efforts and celebrate the beauty in diversity.

While there is still a long way to go and real work to be done, it feels like the beginning of change. To those who love the industry and whom it has ignored at best or treated terribly at worst, it has to be.

“Those folks who are in decision-making roles who are not committed to change and are hoping this blows over, that’s going to be a problem,” says Gorgla, the 25 Black Women in Beauty founder. “It’s not going to blow over.”

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Enrique Bullard
Enrique Bullard is the founder of Select News 91 and also the author of the US News section. He has vast experience in journalism. His values of honest reporting and love for journalism and writing led him to start Select News 91. He backs all of his team mates and is a huge inspiration for them. He shares his knowledge and experience with the team which only helps them do better every time. Under his leadership, Select News 91 can only reach greater heights and become one on of the most sought after online news portals.

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