Stories from Political Issues

Thanks to Aurora James, Major Retailers Are Taking the ’15 Percent Pledge’ to Stock Shelves With Black-Owned Brands

Kara Jillian Brown

Kara Jillian BrownJune 16, 2020

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Photo: Grace Miller / W+G Creative

When Aurora James posted a note on Instagram on May 29 asking major retailers like Sephora, Target, Whole Foods, and Barnes & Noble to pledge 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned brands, she wasn’t sure what would come of it. The next day, the idea had a dedicated Instagram handle and hashtag. Retailers like Bando and Heyday that weren’t directly called out by James quickly decided to join the pledge. And Sephora committed on June 10. According to James, this is one of many steps that retailers can take to better support the Black community.

“I am especially torn up by how much Black businesses were suffering as a result of the pandemic. Launching the 15 Percent Pledge is one thing I felt I could do to make a difference, as well as call on others to show their support,” says James. “By committing to the pledge, major retailers can begin to take steps towards financial equality. Black people spend trillions of dollars in this country every year but yet represent an insignificant fraction of how these companies allocate their purchasing power. I am asking these huge corporations to rethink their business strategy as well as rethink business relationships in order to fairly represent the Black community on their shelves.”

 

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@wholefoods @target @shopmedmen @walmart @saks @sephora @netaporter @barnesandnoble @homedepot I am asking you to commit to buying 15% of your products from Black owned businesses. . So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power. So many of your stores are set up in Black communities. So many of your sponsored posts are seen on Black feeds. This is the least you can do for us. We represent 15% of the population and we need to represent 15% of your shelf space. . Whole Foods if you were to sign on to this pledge, it could immediately drive much needed support to Black farmers. Banks will be forced to take them seriously because they will be walking in with major purchase orders from Whole Foods. Investors for the very first time will start actively seeking them out. Small businesses can turn into bigger ones. Real investment will start happening in Black businesses which will subsequently be paid forward into our Black communities. . Dont get me wrong, I understand the complexities of this request. I am a business Woman. I have sold millions of dollars of product over the years at a business I started with $3500 at a flea market. So I am telling you we can get this figured out. This is an opportunity. It is your opportunity to get in the right side of this. . So for all of the ‘what can we do to help?’ questions out there, this is my personal answer. #15PercentPledge . I will get texts that this is crazy. I will get phone calls that this is too direct, too big of an ask, too this, too that. But I don’t think it’s too anything, in fact I think it’s just a start. You want to be an ally? This is what I’m asking for.

A post shared by Aurora James 🦢 (@aurorajames) on

James is the founder and designer of Brother Vellies, a luxury accessories brand that sells items crafted by artisans in South Africa, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Italy, Haiti, and New York. She knows how hard it is to run a business, and doesn’t take what she’s asked of these retailers lightly, especially in light of the economic hit resulting from COVID-19.

“We need major retailers—Target, Whole Foods, and Barnes & Noble, among others—to take the pledge because they have a big economic influence,” says James. “We want them to seek out and invest in brands they may have previously turned a blind eye to. The support from these major retailers will help these brands grow when they are seeking outside investment or when they are walking into a bank.”

The 15 Percent Pledge outlines three steps that retailers should commit to:

  1. Take Stock of the percentage of shelf-space and contracts given to Black-owned businesses and suppliers at present.
  2. Take Ownership of your findings, thoroughly interrogating how existing blind spots and biases within your company and society at large have led to the disparities—and what concrete steps you can take to address them. Publish your findings internally and externally, and use them to inform a brand new vision for “business as usual.”
  3. Take Action Define and publish a plan for growing the share of Black businesses you empower to at least 15 percent, alongside a concrete strategy by which you plan to stay accountable to and transparent around your commitment. Execute your plan.

Once a retailer commits to the pledge, there is no prescribed timeline for when they need to complete the above steps. But the pledge does recommend that retailers move forward quickly. “While we have not recommended a timeline, urgency and expediency are of the essence—challenge yourself to make bold changes as quickly as possible, and set near term milestones and benchmarks against which to measure meaningful steps towards the ultimate goal,” reads a section on the Pledge’s website.

Brands James has directly called on to take the  15 Perfect Pledge include Sephora, Ulta Beauty, Med Men, Target, Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Saks Fifth Avenue, Net-a-Porter, Home Depot, Shop Bop, and Kroger. So far only Sephora has publicly announced commitment. Other retailers, including Rent the Runway, BandoHeyday, Violet Grey, and Nox, have taken the pledge of their own accord.

When Sephora announced last week that they were committing to the pledge, James and her team were elated. “Sephora is taking a real stand against systemic racism and discrimination and will work with us to put funding back into the Black community, which is huge,” says James. “It represents billions of dollars for Black-owned businesses majority of which will be women, so Black women founders in the beauty space—it is really exciting.” Of the 290 brands on Sephora’s shelves, only nine are Black-owned: Golde, Pat McGrath Labs, Briogeo, and Fenty Beauty; if its current stock was 15 percent Black-owned, Sephora would carry 43 Black-owned brands.

The immediate next steps for the pledge is to grow its network of committed retailers. “But ultimately, we see this transcending industries so that no matter what the organization, there are actionable plans to promote Black entrepreneurship and leadership,” says James.

“I hope that the fashion industry will be able to reevaluate what business-as-usual looks like and start thinking a little bit more about their supply chain,” says James. “How they are actually treating the people they work with? What imagery they are putting out there to inspire people to shop? Because oftentimes, a lot of it has been rooted in trying to make women feel less than and I think we should try to focus instead on having women feel like the best versions of themselves.”

James says that everyone can help out in this effort. You can sign the petition to put pressure on major retailers to take the pledge and text “PLEDGE” to 917-540-8148 to receive updates on brands that have committed as well as information on Black-owned businesses.

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