Industry • Community

15% Pledge: How Beauty Brands Can Support Black-Owned Businesses

Representation makes a difference for customers, business owners, and the beauty industry as a whole.

The 15 Percent Pledge is a non-profit organization on a mission to increase visibility, support, and market share for Black-owned brands. The campaign's intended results range from greater representation and product diversity for consumers to economic equity and equality for Black business owners whose access to opportunities, resources, and investment has been historically restricted by “business as usual.”

In this article, we’ll look at the organizing principles of the 15 Percent Pledge, learn from the beauty brands that have accepted the call, and explore how the whole beauty industry can and should do their part.

What is the 15% Pledge?

The 15 Percent Pledge is an organized initiative calling on major retailers to dedicate at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. Aurora James, the designer behind accessories brand Brother Vellies, wanted to create a concrete way for companies and corporations to affect real change, beyond just posting bland solidarity statements to their social media or donating to high profile charities. 15% isn’t an arbitrary number — James chose it specifically because Black people make up nearly 15% of the United States population. 

At the retail level, the idea is that shelves should more accurately represent shoppers. But from a business perspective, the 15% Pledge seeks to grease the gears of entrepreneurship. As more globally recognized retailers sign on to the pledge, the hope is that it will become easier for Black business owners to succeed, whether that means receiving bank loans and VC funding, finding mentorship and support, or increasing their visibility in the marketplace.

How did the 15% Pledge start?

In June 2020, social media platforms were flooded with black squares and posts in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But the month before, Aurora James called out a number of major brands and retailers with a request that would turn the already bubbling solidarity trend into real action: “I am asking you to commit to buying 15% of your products from Black owned businesses,” she wrote. 

James called out brands like Whole Foods, Target, and Med Men in her original post, but her role in the fashion world makes it no surprise that the focus was placed squarely on fashion and beauty brands like Sephora, Saks, and Shopbop. The 15% Pledge gained momentum and legitimacy quickly; James created the Instagram post on a Saturday, launched a website and a petition on Sunday, and became a registered non-profit on Wednesday.

Ten days after James posted the idea, Sephora was the first to take the pledge. In the United States alone, Sephora has over 400 locations and works with almost 300 brands. James commended Sephora’s leadership and acknowledged the brand’s outsized power and influence in the beauty industry and the retail world.

“Ultimately, this commitment is about more than the prestige products on our shelves,” Artemis Patrick, Sephora’s chief merchandising officer, told The New York Times. “It starts with a long-term plan diversifying our supply chain and building a system that creates a better platform for Black-owned brands to grow, while ensuring Black voices help shape our industry. We recognize we can do better.”

Since Sephora signed on, a number of major brands have followed suit. Sephora Canada made its own pledge, along with Bluemercury, Ulta Beauty, and retailers like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom. While James’ early research showed that Black-owned brands accounted for no more than 3% of retail shelf space, more than a year later, beauty brands sit at the forefront of the 15% Pledge. Some of these beauty retailers have gone on to create their own initiatives, like Ulta Beauty’s MUSE program (magnifying, uplifting, supporting, and empowering Black voices), and Sephora Accelerate, a brand incubator focused on founders of color.

How can beauty businesses take the 15% Pledge?

As an official non-profit organization, the 15% Pledge puts pressure on major retailers and corporations. The mission is to “encourage the private sector — from Fortune 500 companies to individual consumers — to use their financial power to create more equitable market share for Black-owned businesses”. But beauty businesses of all sizes can take part in the 15% Pledge by implementing the same principles that bigger corporations agree to enact when they sign on:

Step 1: Take stock

Go on a fact-finding mission within your own retail shelves and business operations. What percentage of shelf space and vendor or supplier contracts do you currently give to Black-owned businesses?

Step 2: Take ownership

Once you find the facts, own up to them. The 15% Pledge website suggests “thoroughly interrogating how existing blind spots and biases within your company and society at large have led to the disparities”. This is important soul searching work; discovering how you got to where you are will help you avoid perpetuating the mistakes you made in the past. Give your internal team, your customers, and the general public access to your findings.

Step 3: Take action

Then determine what concrete steps you will take to address those disparities. Publicly share your action plan for how you will grow the share of Black businesses you support, empower, and stock to at least 15%. Make sure your plan includes structures that facilitate accountability and transparency, to keep yourself honest about your commitment and give your community the opportunity to follow along with your progress every step of the way.

How can beauty businesses involve their communities?

The important thing for businesses to understand is that the 15% Pledge is more than just a post or a hashtag, it’s a contract. The corporations that take the pledge work closely with the non-profit’s team to enact the steps of the contract, meeting regularly to check in on progress and design new action items that lead to increased impact. Smaller beauty businesses can recreate those strategies on their own terms by getting their entire communities involved. 

  • Hold regular progress and planning meetings with your team and/or outside advisors

  • Keep customers in the loop with regular progress updates

  • Adopt the pledge’s spirit of transparency, accountability, and measurable progress.

Another way to get your community involved is to invite your customers to join you in the 15% Pledge. The organization has released a three-step Consumer Commitment for individuals who want to take part in the movement; take inventory of your own spending power, devote at least 15% of your monthly spending to buying Black, and create a monthly donation to the 15% Pledge.

Getting your customers on board with your efforts will help take your 15% Pledge that much further. The vision of a more equitable future is within reach when we work together toward that goal. There’s strength in numbers, both for beauty businesses’ distinct communities and for the future of the beauty industry as a whole.

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