Responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, and making Black History Month really count

By Adeena Wells


The Black Lives Matter movement has been around since 2013. It originated with the creation of a hashtag on social media in response to the killing of a Black teenager and the acquittal of the man who shot him; but in 2020, the movement gained momentum on an unprecedented level following the death of George Floyd, which brought to the forefront the unlawful killings of numerous Black people in the US and elsewhere at the hands of police forces, leading to widespread protests and demands for real change.

But how has the movement affected companies within the retail and consumer industry? And what more could they be doing to increase equality, diversity and inclusion within their workforces and in the wider communities they serve, and to demonstrate their commitment to this?

Companies in the retail and consumer sector responded to the Black Lives Matter movement in varying ways and to varying degrees; with some taking real action to enforce systemic change, and others simply posting on their social media channels about #BlackoutTuesday and leaving their efforts there. Consumers have in turn responded to these varied efforts by either showing their continued support for brands or shunning them in favour of more inclusive ones.

It is easy to see why companies may be reluctant to take significant action in response to the movement, given that there's no shortage of stories about "diversity don'ts", committed by those within the fashion sector in particular. For example, the November 2019 issue of Elle magazine Germany was titled "Black is back", with references to both black as a colour and Black individuals within the fashion industry being featured as a "trend". To make matters worse, the magazine included a white model on the cover and misidentified one Black model as another. This is a clear example of diversity being perceived (and used) as a "trend", with a specific feature highlighting a particular race without any real meaning behind it, and the public response to this was understandably very negative. Companies can often be blindsided by the need to be seen to be making a statement and rushing to do so in a tone-deaf way, without giving proper thought to the issue at stake or backing up the statement with meaningful action. Those businesses that have diversity and inclusion as a regular item on their agenda, and demonstrate a genuine and continued effort in this arena, are less likely to fall into this trap, as any campaigns or products will have been carefully considered and thought out.

Other examples of brands that have made missteps in this arena include H&M, which included an image of a young Black male model wearing a hoodie with the slogan "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle" on their website, and Gucci which released a black balaclava sweater reminiscent of blackface. With more diverse voices contributing to the decisions made by these businesses in relation to design and promotion, these types of error could have been avoided.

But not everyone is missing the mark. Rihanna's beauty line Fenty, and her fashion lines Fenty and Savage X Fenty have been praised for using models from a wide variety of different races, and catering to a diverse customer base with a foundation line of 40 shades and a clothing range for all sizes. And Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief at Vogue magazine, is shaking up the industry as the first Black male editor of one of the largest and most influential fashion publications. It is possible for companies to make real steps to be truly diverse, whether that’s from the inside by appointing a diverse workforce, or externally through showing real representation of their consumer base; but this doesn't mean that the task is easy. Companies are facing increased pressure to have a sustainable ethos, to use ethical practices, to promote and encourage use of images that reflect the full diversity of their consumer base, to name but a few.

October marks Black History Month, and it's only natural that companies will start to ramp up their diversity and inclusion campaigns with online and social media promotions, and the like. To mark a change from last October and following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, companies should use this month to reflect on where they are in their efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in their own businesses, and where they would like to be when Black History Month 2021 comes around. So what can companies do to ensure that they really are making a difference in the right way?

We have set out below some practical tips on what companies can do in October to make the month really count:

  • Understand the difference between diversity and inclusion:

Diversity refers to the similarities and differences between individuals, whereas inclusion refers to the efforts employed to embrace those differences. For example, it is one thing to hire members of staff from diverse backgrounds and say that the workforce is diverse, but it is another to say that those diverse members of staff feel included within their teams. Companies are getting much better at employing a diverse workforce (although there is still much further to go), but this does not always translate into greater inclusion. If businesses do not focus on inclusion, their efforts made to increase diversity will be fruitless as attrition levels will be high and the progression of minorities within the organisation will be limited. 

  • Think about making changes internally as well as externally:

As well as having diverse marketing campaigns and using diverse imagery online, companies should reflect on the diversity of their staff and whether their stated public commitment to diversity and inclusion is reflected in the makeup of their organisation. There is boundless evidence demonstrating that diverse groups of people bring different perspectives to the table, have more creative discussions, and make more informed and better considered decisions, not to mention that diverse businesses are more profitable. Businesses should think about recruitment policies and make a conscious effort to think about the types of people they want to hire and how they can attract and, crucially, retain that talent.

  • Review diversity and inclusion policies:

Think about what changes can be made both short term and long term, and set ambitious but realistic goals to ensure that progressive change continues to happen.

  • Ask the right people about your diversity and inclusion strategy and policies:

With the likes of Chanel, Gucci and Prada appointing their first heads of diversity and inclusion in recent years, it is never too late to focus on working towards reviewing and revamping policies.

  • Be accountable:

Businesses should communicate with their online audience and their consumers about their current position, the changes that they intend to make, and touch base when such changes have been implemented. This accountability will help to build trust with their consumer base and increase brand loyalty.

  • Take advantage of Black History Month, but don’t stop there:

Businesses should use this month to showcase the efforts that they have already been making in the diversity and inclusion space, and discuss what the next year looks like. They should make sure that any efforts are not simply tokenistic, by continuing the discussions beyond the end of the month and involving their workforce and customer base in this conversation throughout the year.

If you would like to discuss collaborations or joint projects around diversity and inclusion topics, please reach out to EMBRACE, Bird & Bird's BAME network. If you would like further advice relating to the legal aspects of your diversity and inclusion initiatives, our Employment team can provide further assistance and guidance. Their article on how employers can be better allies to their Black employees can be found here.