Update on 15% Retailer Engagement: NPR
MICHEL MARTIN, ANIMATOR:
Last summer, as social justice protests unfolded across the country, many people started talking about how to bring about lasting change, not only in, say, police behavior, but also in other areas, such as the workplace and business relationships to push these spaces to become more inclusive.
To that end, Brooklyn-based retailer Aurora James has offered a 15 percent pledge. She challenged large retailers to devote 15% of their storage space to products made by black-owned businesses. Today, the 15 Percent Pledge has some 25 business partners, including Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, West Elm and The Gap. Sephora, which is owned by luxury goods company LVMH, was the first major retailer to sign up.
Last year, we discussed the idea with Aurora James and Artemis Patrick, Head of Merchandising at Sephora. So we thought that because the goal was to make concrete changes and not just talk about them, we would like to review them to find out how it goes. And they graciously accepted. So they’re here with us now.
Aurora James, thank you very much for joining us.
AURORA JAMES: Thank you very much for inviting me.
MARTIN: And, Artemis Patrick, welcome to you too.
ARTEMIS PATRICK: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: So, Aurora, I’ll start with you. How is it going?
JAMES: Oh, my God. So it’s been, you know, a crazy, amazing trip. We just celebrated our first anniversary at the 15 Percent Pledge. And, you know, what started out as a simple request has really turned into a pretty massive movement. And we’re really just getting started. But already we can see, you know, the breadth of different pledge takers we’ve signed that there’s a real need for this in the market. And consumers are also very excited about the engagement.
MARTIN: So, Artemis, what about you? How is the 15 percent engagement on your end?
PATRICK: It was a hell of a trick. It’s been even more exciting than I imagined in terms of the impact I think Aurora’s engagement has had on the industry as a whole. And every time another retailer signs up, we really celebrate. We are not competitive with this in mind.
MARTIN: Well, when you say one hell of a ride, I mean ups and downs and maybe a few twists and turns. So maybe you could tell me a bit more. Was there – I’m going on the pretty tough road trip metaphor here.
MARTIN: So, were there any obstacles in the road that either of you would be willing to share with me?
JAMES: I mean, I can talk to him. It’s really hard work, you know, and over the last 12 months even myself, as the founder of 15 Percent Pledge, had to spend a ton of emotional capital to do this job, you know? And that’s a whole new proposition, you know? When I asked these retailers to pledge to get 15%, even those who were interested and brave enough to move forward, like Sephora, had to do the work first to find out where they were at, you know?
And when I first launched engagement, people were saying 15%, you know, that doesn’t even sound like enough. And what we’ve all sort of found out is that the majority of the retailers are pretty low there, you know, 1%, in some cases 0%. So it definitely stung?
Plus, for every yes that we’ve had, all of these 25 amazing companies, there have also been companies that haven’t made the commitment. And it was hard too. But I think, you know, part of this journey and part of this journey is really focusing and doubling down on those who are willing to do this job and not just now, for the long term.
MARTIN: Artemis, have there been any negative reactions to Sephora’s participation in the 15% Pledge? Unfortunately, you know, we have seen negative reactions to a lot of things. And it’s interesting that former President Barack Obama recently started talking about how he sees some of the political movements that have emerged as some kind of response to his presidency, which, you know, like he did. said, it’s two steps forward, one step back, and I’ll take a step back as long as we get the two steps forward.
So I want to ask you – have you had anything like this?
PATRICK: I mean, look, in the current climate, we know that being upfront about your values and beliefs will spark a discussion, you know? What is important to us, however, is that we must be, continue to be true to our long-standing values of diversity, equity and inclusion and live them through our actions.
MARTIN: Aurora, you know, when we spoke, the last time we spoke, the fashion and beauty brands were the ones that took the lead in signing the pledge, like, like we said, Sephora the first on board, then Rent the Runway, WeWoreWhat. But now it looks like a wider array of retailers are tapping into. What do you think ? I am thinking, for example, of West Elm. what do you think that means?
JAMES: Yeah, I mean, I think we could even go further, you know, in some of the industries that should really be involved in the engagement, you know, the Whole Foods, the Krogers of the world. There is so much to do in this space. And smart CEOs understand that black consumer spending is also growing at an incredible rate, you know? They expect black consumer spending to exceed $ 1 trillion by 2030. And I think people want to make sure they’re really responding to that call to have diverse products on their shelves. And they know that consumers need more than, you know, one-time donations, that they actually need to actively engage in change and commit to diversity and have a wider product assortment.
MARTIN: Or, like, awake T-shirts, for example. People want more than …
MARTIN: … T-shirts with cool slogans on them (laughs).
JAMES: And consumers are smart. They want to know – like, OK, that T-shirt says awake. Where was it made? That he has done? How much were these people paid in this process? So, you know, they’re definitely getting a lot more wired about it. And they’re happy to spend their money on retailers who they believe are in line with their own values as well. And I think we’re seeing it now more than ever.
MARTIN: Artemis, I can’t ignore the fact that the last year has been a year of tremendous disruption and turmoil around the world. Yes, there are the ongoing social justice protests, many of them also around the world, but also the health crisis that has disrupted supply chains.
PATRICK: Of course.
MARTIN: I’m just saying that there have been all these crazy things over the year that have affected the retail business. And did it all affect that – the ability to …
MARTIN: … make progress in this area?
PATRICK: You know, what I would say is that it just made us more steadfast. You know, at the end of the day, that’s what prompted us to do a national study that we commissioned into racist prejudice and unfair treatment in retail. So it’s not about, you know, hitting your chest or doing something for Sephora. It was just trying to figure out what is going on in the retail industry. Of course, the representation of products on the shelves is one of them.
But, you know, from the study, we learned that 4 in 5 retail shoppers don’t believe there is representation in brands or businesses that are owned and designed for people of color. So, you know, taking that time and that commitment – of course, we’re working from home. But, you know, we have a lot of time to think about how we’re going to continue our engagement. And this study has just fueled our commitment even more.
MARTIN: So the last question for both of you: what would you like to happen next? Aurora, do you want to start?
JAMES: Of course, of course. I mean, I’m incredibly excited about what we’ve already accomplished. I think for me it’s really, you know, seeing a whole bunch of amazing black owned businesses grow and grow because of our promise-takers, you know? I think at the end of the day that’s the goal because in launching the engagement, it was really about supporting the black community by supporting various founders, right? And I think we’ve, you know, just hit the tip of the iceberg in starting to do it.
But, you know, through our promise-takers and their contractual commitments with us, we’ve now made sure that over $ 4 billion will go to black entrepreneurs across the country over the next two years. And, you know, it’s a huge, huge, huge thing. And, you know, as a nonprofit, I’m just excited to continue to grow and expand and, you know, to finally see who’s next to make the commitment.
MARTIN: When are you sleeping? How do you – what? How are you…
JAMES: Oh, my God. Michel, never.
JAMES: Never, ever.
MARTIN: I mean …
JAMES: But it’s all worth it.
MARTIN: … You still run your business.
JAMES: I know. I know. But that’s the thing, you know? Black women – we’re working overtime right now, so we have to.
MARTIN: Okay. Artemis, what would you like to happen next?
PATRICK: You know, I can talk specifically about beauty. And beauty has always been about self-expression, so it’s very, very personal. And I think everyone has a personal beauty story, especially if you’re a person of color in America. You know, I have mine. It’s always been about my hair. I immigrated from Iran to the United States when I was 7 years old. And I spent my whole teenage life trying to look like Farrah Fawcett, you know? But in reality I have thick curly hair, but there were no products for me. But it was the personification of beauty. And now that I have a daughter of my own, I see how she kisses her curls. And she loves to see people who look like her make products for her. And in the end, for me, it’s a real change.
MARTIN: Artemis Patrick is in charge of merchandising at Sephora. It was the first major retailer to sign the 15 percent pledge last year. Aurora James is the creator of the 15 Percent Engagement. It owns the Brother Vellies accessories brand. As we said, she called on brands to devote 15% of storage space to products created by black-owned businesses. Thank you both very much for speaking with us. Hope we talk again and, you know, keep hearing how it goes.
JAMES: Of course. Thank you very much Michel. I appreciate your time so much.
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