In the midst of the national conversation about racial equity last summer, retailers joined in the soul searching. Aurora James, creative director for Brother Vellies, had a simple question: Would retailers commit to devoting 15 percent of shelf space to Black-owned businesses, about equal to the size of the Black population in the United States?
The response was quick, with retailers like Sephora, West Elm and Macy’s among early adopters. Now, nine months later, some of those same retailers are making meaningful change — and the 15 Percent Pledge continues to grow. Crate & Barrel signed on just last month.
Learn more about other diversity and inclusion initiatives in the retail industry here.
While the 15 Percent Pledge may have started the conversation, other retailers have launched their own initiatives aimed at diversifying the products they sell. Out of those have come programs like Giant Foods’, which has shelf tags that identify products from diverse makers. Lowe’s is working directly with diverse entrepreneurs to develop products for its physical and online stores.
For many, like Macy’s Inc., the Pledge offered an opportunity that went hand-in-hand with its previously established goals, “further amplifying our commitment to accelerate the growth and advancement of Black-owned businesses,” as Shawn Outler, Macy’s Inc. chief diversity officer, put it.
The 15 Percent Pledge
Sephora, the first retailer to sign on to the Pledge, recognized it as an “opportunity to take meaningful action,” says Priya Venkatesh, Sephora’s senior vice president of merchandising, skincare and hair.
Action was swift: Sephora launched a new taskforce “entirely dedicated to looking at the full picture, including how we scout and vet brands to how we can evolve our business practices,” Venkatesh says.
“What’s important is that our approach to the 15 Percent Pledge is more holistic, with long-term success for these POC-founded brands as the reward. We will be working closely with Aurora, and other founders and industry leaders, who will help advise us on actions we should be taking and helping us develop our more detailed plans. We want to do this the right way and make sure we are taking steps to set these companies up for long-term success.”
Already, Sephora has launched a new tab on its website, curating products from Black-owned brands.
“Ultimately this is bigger than just products,” Venkatesh says. “It really starts with a long-term plan for success and sustainability. Our primary goal is for Black-owned prestige brands to grow and succeed and we will share more about how we will track our success.”
Venkatesh promises a more formal update on progress toward meeting the Pledge, as well as its broader action plan, later in the year. But she notes Sephora “will make strong progress” toward meeting its Pledge commitment.
Transparency is key, she says. “We will hold ourselves accountable to our entire Sephora community to demonstrate that we are making progress and seeing change. This is not the beginning of our work and it will not be the end.”
Macy’s, another early Pledge signee, is debuting 11 new Black-owned beauty brands during Black History Month. The brands, including Camille Rose, Curls, Epara and LaPierre Cosmetics, were on CEW’s Indie 26 list.
Macy’s initiatives aren’t contained to February. In March, it launches “Icons of Style,” a collaboration with Black creatives for limited edition collections from Zerina Akers, Misa Hylton, Aminah Abdul Jillil, Allen Onyia and Ouigi Theodore.
Building up entrepreneurs
In some cases, retailers are finding that they must go deeper into helping entrepreneurs of color scale up than just adding products to the shelves.
This year, Sephora’s five-year-old Accelerate program will focus exclusively on helping entrepreneurs of color get their products off the ground with Sephora’s training, mentorship, merchandising support and potential funding.
“Our goal is to provide these founders with the community and ecosystem to support their launch at Sephora,” Venkatesh says. “This is a long-term commitment that takes time. It is one that we want to get right, not something we are looking to rush just to say we have met 15 percent.”
Macy’s has done the same with its 2021 class of The Workshop at Macy’s, which to date has helped 120 diverse brands scale their businesses in the last decade.
It’s all part of Macy’s efforts to “explore and develop new paths to identify and grow the next generation of Black-owned businesses and creatives,” Macy’s said in a statement.
In September, Lowe’s launched its Making It … With Lowe’s program in collaboration with Shark Tank’s Daymond John. Entrepreneurs were invited to pitch directly to the home improvement store, with a chance to be sold online and in physical stores.
Changing the face of retail
The commitment to changing retail into an industry that is welcoming for all — entrepreneurs and shoppers alike — will not be instant.
“It’s important to keep in mind that a change like this will not happen overnight,” Venkatesh says. “It’s important work — and will take time in order to get it right. Be patient, but be passionate, and ensure all layers of your business are involved.”
“A change like this will not happen overnight. Be patient, but be passionate, and ensure all layers of your business are involved.”Priya Venkatesh, Sephora
A public initiative like signing the 15 Percent Pledge should be just the beginning of a holistic approach, one that aligns with what’s happening throughout the company.
“This might sound obvious — but the key really is to be authentic,” Venkatesh says. “While we did join the 15 Percent Pledge just six months ago, this type of commitment is something our company had already made to build a more inclusive beauty community both internally and externally.”
And finally, it’s important to realize that this is a story worth sharing.
Giant Foods, the 164-store grocer in the Washington, D.C., region, is rolling out updated shelf labels signaling products from companies that are women-, veteran-, Black-, Asian-Indian-, Hispanic-, LGBTQ- and Asian-Pacific-owned. In all, the company features more than 3,100 products from 218 businesses.
There is a long way to go for 15 percent of shelf space in retail to be provided by Black-owned businesses, but the Pledge and other programs like it are making progress.