Walking into a huge beauty store similar to Sephora can be overwhelming as you confront rows and rows of bright products promising clear skin and high cheekbones. But as the light dims and you adjust, have you ever stopped to think about whether that lipstick or blush was created by a Black-owned beauty brand? For Brooklyn-based creative director Aurora James, founder of the traditional African and artisanal accessories brand Brother Vellies, the lack of Black-owned brands available on retail shelves prompted her to develop the 15 Percent Pledge. The initiative calls for major retailers to pledge a minimum of 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

After weeks of protests against police brutality across the country, major retailers have taken to social media platforms such as Instagram (see Nike's message) to show their solidarity. James asked herself whether these brands and their performative responses, made her feel supported. And her answer was: no. So, James posted to her Instagram on May 29 with what would become the 15 Percent Pledge. James asked major retailers, including Sephora, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods to devote 15% of their shelf space to products from Black-owned businesses. James chose this particular percentage as Black people in the U.S. make up 15% of the population.

She challenged these retailers to put $15.5 billion back into Black communities. The proposal would lead to growth and new investments for these companies that would ultimately extend to Black communities. For example, if Whole Foods were to sign the pledge, their signature would lead to some much-needed support of Black farmers. The pledge is one way to dismantle systemic racism in the multi-brand retail industry.

Her proposal quickly became trending. Sephora was the first to take the pledge and is creating an advisory group including James to make changes. The U.S. Business currently sells almost 290 brands, but only 9 are Black-owned. Sephora is committed to the three stages of the pledge: researching the current percentage of shelf space dedicated to Black-owned brands, developing steps to increase that number, and taking concrete actions to reach 15%.

Sephora's executive vice president and chief marketing officer Artemis Patrick told Vogue, "Ultimately, this commitment is about more than the prestige products on our shelves. 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."

Other large companies have signed the pledge as well, including Rent the Runway. But James wants to get Whole Foods and Target, as well as Shopbop, Net-a-Porter, MatchesFashion, Moda Operandi, and Nordstrom to sign, too.

On the website, you can sign the pledge which has a current goal of 1 million signatures. Helping Black businesses is especially important right now, not only because of the Black Lives Matter movement but also due to the pandemic. In fact, 40% of Black-owned businesses have gone bust

and 21% say they won't be able to come back after COVID-19. There are currently 8,753 retailers owned by Black businesses, which you can buy from, support, amplify as a customer.

The 15 Percent Pledge urges companies, no matter their current financial state or whether they are a multi-brand company, to take the pledge and implement bold changes and set measurable benchmarks for the future. Ms. James told The New York Times, "The idea behind the 15 percent pledge is to move beyond one-time donations and to create longer-lasting change at retailers."

The pledge holds companies accountable to continue implementing change beyond a donation. This requires hard work and dedication, but if James can work 20 hour days on the Pledge since launching the project, then certainly huge retail businesses can dedicate some time. As James told Vogue, "Black people in American have been working really hard for a really long time. I don't think that's an excuse. The time to act is now and I think that we are always going to remember the companies that stood with us and those that chose to stand silent in this moment because their silence is deafening."

James is asking major retailers to be true allies and do the work to dismantle systemic racism at the retail level. A black square, the firing of executive leaders who have made racist comments, and large donations are a start. But to be a true ally, the retail industry must make a lifelong commitment to racial justice and not continue down the path of white silence.


Elizabeth Berry