The murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in the USA has sparked protests and riots around the world as the Black Lives Matters (BLM) movement and other anti-racism sentiments have gathered momentum. Many brands have come out in support of the BLM movement in response to consumers wanting to know the stance taken by the businesses they are planning on spending money with.
Some major brands, such as Nike, Adidas and Michael Kors have publically supported the protests even though they been in the position where their physical stores were looted during the riots.
However, there have been countless other brands that have made statements about racism on their corporate social media platforms and come under fire from customers for their seemingly tokenistic and hollow messages. The message from customers is clear: they want to see meaningful change in the world, including from the brands they support, and not just pretty graphics on social media that express notions of solidarity. Many brands appear to be posting something because they feel obliged to.
In the era of “cancel culture” it is particularly risky for a brand to be making cynical, token gestures. Members of the public will call out what they perceive to be an empty gesture, and if the company making these pronouncements has any history of racism at all, it will be brought to the fore if the messages of solidarity are just perceived to be platitudes and contrary to the way the brand actually lives its values.
So what can fashion brands do to meaningfully stand up to racism? One example is the approach taken by H&M. The brand posted on its social media that it believes in equal rights for everyone and supports the Black community. “We understand this goes far beyond a social media post,” H&M wrote. “We’ve learned the hard day how much work we still must do to live by the values we believe in. We’ve committed to using our voice and influence to do our part and stand up against racism and discrimination.” H&M announced it was donating $500,000 US to the civil rights organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, non profit organization Color of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union. The brand isn’t the only one that has pledged donations to these types of organizations. Collectively many fashion and beauty brands have followed suit, recognizing they need to do more than just pay lip service to the cause.
Donations aren’t the only way fashion brands can make a meaningful difference. Another way is to address diversity in the structure of the company. From the board members to the models wearing the clothing – right through to everyday employees. Are people of color being given equal opportunities within your brand? Fashion has a deeply problematic history with race. Systemic racism in the USA can be traced back to the invention of the cotton gin when African people were enslaved to work on plantations to serve the garment production industry. While this may not be the case in Western countries now, racism still plays a part in the production of many clothing items and accessories.
Think about your supply chain. Do you know what conditions are like where your garments are produced, or where the materials are farmed or made? Are the people manufacturing your items paid a living wage? Do they work in a safe environment? People of color in many poorer countries are often the ones producing fashion items, working in conditions that white people in wealthy countries would not work in. Whatever your approach is, it should be ongoing, and not just a stance taken at this moment of unrest. Taking action, and doing more than making a statement, is paramount.