Sephora and Rent the Runway commit to '15% pledge' to support Black-owned brands

Cosmetics retailer Sephora and Rent the Runway, an online subscription service for designer clothes, have both committed to ensuring 15 per cent of the products they carry will come from Black creators in reaction to a surging social media campaign.

Concept to create real change for Black-owned businesses by Canadian-born designer

People shop at a Sephora store in Manhattan. The company already carries Fenty, the beauty brand launched last year by American singer Rihanna in part to better serve Black women through a wider range of makeup shades and products. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Cosmetics retailer Sephora and Rent the Runway, an online subscription service for designer clothes, have both committed to ensuring 15 per cent of the products they carry will come from Black creators in reaction to a surging social media campaign.

The so-called 15 per cent pledge challenges major companies to back up messages of solidarity with action to support Black businesses and better serve Black consumers.

The campaign calls for retailers to devote 15 per cent of shelf space to Black-owned businesses to reflect the proportion of the U.S. population that is Black. Barely two weeks old, the pledge launched as protests over police violence against Black people swept across the United States and around the world.

The campaign is the brainchild of Toronto-born designer Aurora James, whose Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company Brother Vellies makes footwear, handbags and belts.

"The world is calling on you to do better — and now, it's time to pick up the phone," said James in one of her Instagram posts.

As more corporations are publicly acknowledging systemic racism exists within their businesses, corporate promises of change are under the spotlight with activists and the public taking companies to task for hollow claims made in commercials or on social media.

Demands that corporations take concrete action to support Black communities and hire and promote Black people at every level of their organizations are getting louder. But the voice of Canadian entrepreneur James seemed to break through. 

The 15 per cent pledge is the brainchild of Toronto-born designer Aurora James. It calls for retailers to devote 15 per cent of shelf space to Black-owned businesses to reflect the proportion of the U.S. population that is Black. (Grace Miller)

'It's a huge deal'

The 15 per cent strategy is off to a promising start with Sephora's support. The company is owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and has more than 400 stores in the U.S., as well as counters in J.C. Penney stores. In Canada, the chain has almost 80 locations, and nearly 2,000 around the world.  

Exact sales figures aren't available, but Sephora is the biggest part of LVMH's retailing category, which collectively took in $2.1 billion in profit last year, up eight per cent from the previous year's level.

"We recognize how important it is to represent Black businesses and communities, and we must do better," Sephora said on Instagram. "So, we're starting now." 

In an interview with CBC News, James said she is pleased to see Sephora step up to join the nascent movement. 

"I was hopeful, but I never in a million years thought that it would only take 12 days for a company like Sephora to sign on and take the pledge," she said. 

Last week, Sephora announced a partnership with the National Black Justice Coalition and raised more than $1 million US to support Black LGBTQ+ people.

Sephora declined CBC's request for an interview, but James said this about its move: "It's a huge deal. I couldn't be more proud of them."  

Another entrepreneur and online marketing expert says he couldn't be more proud of James.

"As soon as I saw it, I stood up and gave her applause. I think it was a great initiative," said Ross Simmonds of Halifax's Foundation Marketing. "To see it happening from an economic standpoint, it's just been very insightful and powerful to see." 

Simmonds said that supporting Black-owned businesses is a good business decision for any brand.

"People, in general, are starting to make buying decisions based off of the companies that they trust — and the companies that they feel they share alignment with as it relates to their values." 

He said that in Canada, where 3.5 per cent of the population is Black, proportionate representation on store shelves "would be billions of dollars placed right into the pockets and lives of Black people."

Canadian cosmetic brand could benefit

One Canadian Black-owned skin care company that would love to be stocked by Sephora is Calgary-based Ellie Bianca.

The seven-year-old brand is focused on natural, sustainable and ethical ingredients, and is carried online in almost 70 stores across the country, including a number of Whole Foods locations.

Evelyne Nyairo founded cosmetics company Ellie Bianca in Calgary seven years ago. It focuses on natural, sustainable and ethical ingredients and is currently sold in almost 70 stores across Canada. (Sheena Zilinski)

Company founder Evelyne Nyairo is sure she's ready to crank up production if she gets a chance with a large retailer. "I've been working so hard the last five years to get our brand ready to go big."

Nyairo said Whole Foods has helped her brand grow without imposing onerous costs for listing fees or marketing that would be problematic for her company at this stage.

For brands going into Sephora, she wants to know "what is the support system going to look like?"

James said she and her group will be working with Sephora to identify "roadblocks and challenges" to bringing businesses in and to establish how they are "going to be accountable to everyone to actually hit the goal."

Customers at a Sephora store in Westgate Mall in Singapore get makeovers. Aurora James, who launched the 15 per cent pledge, called Sephora a company 'with unparalleled influence and power' in the beauty and retail sectors and praised its commitment to the pledge as 'historic.' (Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg)

Rent the Runway commits, too

Rent the Runway's commitment to change was also announced in a social media post.  

"We're doing the work to build a clear, sustained long-term strategy to fight systemic racism," the company said on Twitter. 

Rent the Runway co-founder and CEO Jennifer Hyman further explained on LinkedIn how the company would adapt the pledge to its business model.  

Hyman promised that at least 15 per cent of the fashion talent the company features and supports will be from the Black community. That includes models, brand ambassadors, stylists, photographers, videographers and camera crews, she said. 

Jennifer Hyman, left, shown with co-founder Jennifer Fleiss at the 2011 Global Fashion and Luxury Summit in New York, said her company's 15 per cent commitment will apply to models, brand ambassadors, stylists, photographers, videographers and camera crews. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The company would increase by $1 million US its support for Black designers through its "wholesale, platform and co-manufacturing initiatives."

A better future for Black-owned businesses

James said growing up in Canada empowered her to see change is possible in a different way than some Black Americans.

"Having had the experiences that I had growing up and not having that same level of, you know, hardship that a lot of Black Americans have had, it's helpful because I know that a different reality is possible," she said.

"And I'm also very proud of that. I'm terrified that Canada could lose that."

For now, James has her sights set on Whole Foods, online fashion chain Shopbop and retailer Target. On the 15 per cent pledge Instagram page, there are several messages aimed directly at Target CEO Brian Cornell. 

"You are only devoting $10M to help the entire Black community — that's less than half of the $21.6M you took home to your family last year," she wrote in a post titled Dear Brian. "It's not enough. Not even close." 

James said right now less than one per cent of store shelves are dedicated to Black-owned businesses in the U.S.

"There's so many people who are just dying to see … real change happen," she said.


James Dunne

Producer, CBC News Business

James Dunne researches, produces and writes stories for the business unit at CBC News. He has a decade of experience in business programming, including on the shows Venture and Fortune Hunters. An award-winning videojournalist, he's also worked on special projects and as the late lineup editor for the World at Six on CBC Radio One.


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