What is a single Instagram post worth? You can measure it in likes or shares; you can track how it spreads, a metaphorical virus against the backdrop of a pandemic. But what happens when an idea breaks loose from the social-media confines and starts making major waves in the real world? That is what played out last year, in lightning-fast fashion, for Aurora James’s 15 Percent Pledge.
This past Saturday, the Brother Vellies creative director marked the anniversary of her original post, sprung from the collective grief and exasperation following the death of George Floyd. She started off last May with a handwritten entreaty—“OK, here is one thing you can do for us”—before laying out her off-the-cuff idea. “I am asking you to commit to buying 15% of your products from Black-owned businesses,” she wrote of her vision to see representation on shelves commensurate with American demographics. She tagged heavy-hitting players across industries—Whole Foods, Target, Sephora, Home Depot, and the dispensary MedMen among them. By the next evening James was at work on a website. Three days later, the 15 Percent Pledge was officially a nonprofit. By day 10, Sephora had signed on—the first rumble of what would prove to be a big-business ripple effect. Pledge signers now span 26 businesses, including Macy’s, Crate & Barrel, the UK’s Matches Fashion, and, as of today, Ulta Beauty.
“I’m very emotional about it,” said James by phone last week, a couple days ahead of the anniversary. She acknowledged that everyone has grappled with their own set of realities this past year. In her case, “there hasn’t been a day in the past 363 days that I haven’t worked relentlessly on this,” said James, who also oversees her accessories line and is at work on a forthcoming memoir. The arrival of Ulta has something of a full-circle effect—two major players in beauty retail, united in this shared goal of a more equitable landscape. “I think that really speaks to the magnitude of the work that we’re trying to do because it needs to be an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said James. “It’s not a competitive thing—it’s a celebration thing.”
Ulta Beauty’s formal partnership with the 15 Percent Pledge follows steady groundwork in this direction, including an internal commitment earlier this year to double its assortment of Black-owned brands. (The retailer started at 13 and currently counts 20, halfway toward that goal; newcomers, including the cosmetics line Mented and Black Girl Sunscreen, join brands like Pattern by Tracee Ellis Ross, who serves as Ulta’s diversity and inclusion advisor.)
As Ulta Beauty’s chief merchandising officer Monica Arnaudo explained in a call last week, this effort is a multi-pronged approach that goes beyond simply clearing shelf space for new brands. “It’s not just, ‘Okay, We launched it and we’re done.’ No, we’ve got to build that ecosystem to continue to support,” she said. A team dedicated to emerging brands is helping smaller lines navigate the terrain from direct-to-consumer to nationwide retail. Ulta Beauty has earmarked $4 million in marketing funds specifically to highlight Black-owned lines. “The work for us is showcasing these brands because to drive that equity, we’ve got to drive guest acquisition,” Arnaudo said. “That’s going to build the brand—that’s wealth generation.” Ulta is also committing $20 million to media investments on multicultural platforms, and they’ve funded quarterly training for sales staff around unconscious bias and inclusivity. However much shoppers can expect to see products for curly and coiled hair rightfully getting the front-and-center treatment, “really the work is behind the scenes,” added Arnaudo.
To James, this shift in some ways feels specific to beauty—an industry that historically failed to cater to women of color, whether with shade ranges or products for natural hair. (She calls out the new beauty line Eadem as bright new addition; its debut product, Milk Marvel, is a dark spot correcting serum specifically formulated to be safe for skin of color.) But she also credits those now leading these major retailers. “When I first got on the call with Sephora, it was a call of women,” said James. “Everyone that I’ve spoken to at Ulta has been a woman, and 90% of the people that I’ve worked with over the past year have been a woman”—a group that includes Lauren Santo Domingo of the luxury retailer Moda Operandi and Rent the Runway’s Jenn Hyman.
The 15 Percent Pledge’s continued traction has only fueled James’s pointed goals for which retail giants to reel in next. “Target, always and forever,” she said. Net-a-Porter is “probably feeling pretty lonely out there. We would love to welcome Net-a-Porter into our family.” She’s ready for the likes of Whole Foods, Albertson’s, and Fresh Direct to commit as well. “The food we eat is such a major part of American life and there’s so much culture tied to that.” And she’s happy to see companies go even further. “A lot of our pledge takers are really looking at all sorts of historically underrepresented communities when they do this work,” said James, citing Sephora Canada’s plan to fill 25% of their shelves with BIPOC-led brands. “Just by nature of starting to track your Black representation, you really start tracking all different types of representation, which is key.”
In the meantime, to mark Ulta Beauty’s commitment to the 15 Percent Pledge, here is a mix of essentials from Black-owned brands, from Homebody’s CBD bath soak to sunscreen that gets the seal of approval from Issa Rae’s makeup artist.
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