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Update On Retailers' '15 Percent Pledge'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last summer, as social justice protests were taking place around the country, many people started talking about how to make lasting change, not just in, say, police behavior but also in other areas, like workplace and business relationships to push those spaces to become more inclusive.

To that end, Brooklyn-based retailer Aurora James came up with a 15 Percent Pledge. She challenged major retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to products made by Black-owned companies. Today, the 15 Percent Pledge has some 25 retail partners, including Macy's, Bloomingdale's, West Elm and The Gap. Sephora, which is owned by the luxury goods company LVMH, was the first major retailer to sign on.

Last year, we spoke with Aurora James and Artemis Patrick, the head of merchandising at Sephora, about the idea. So we thought because the whole point was to make concrete changes and not just talk about it that we'd like to have them back on to hear how it's going. And they graciously agreed. So they are here with us now.

Aurora James, thanks so much for joining us.

AURORA JAMES: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And, Artemis Patrick, welcome back to you as well.

ARTEMIS PATRICK: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So, Aurora, I'll start with you. How's it going?

JAMES: Oh, my gosh. So it has been a, you know, crazy and incredible journey. We just celebrated our one-year anniversary at the 15 Percent Pledge. And, you know, what started out as a simple ask has really turned into a pretty gigantic movement. And we're really just getting started. But already, we can see at, you know, the breadth of different pledge takers that we've signed on that there is a real need for this in the market. And consumers are really excited about the pledge as well.

MARTIN: So, Artemis, how about you? How is the 15 Percent Pledge going on your end?

PATRICK: It's been quite a ride. It's been even more exciting than I even imagined in terms of amount of impact that I think that Aurora's pledge has had on the industry at large. And every time another retailer signs on, we truly celebrate. We're not competitive in this spirit.

MARTIN: Well, when you say quite a ride, I'm thinking ups and downs and maybe some twists and turns. So maybe you could tell me a little bit about that. Were there any - I'm going on the road trip metaphor pretty hard here.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So were there any bumps in the road that either of you would be willing to share with me?

JAMES: I mean, I can speak to it. This is really difficult work, you know, and over the past 12 months, even myself as the founder of the 15 Percent Pledge has had to expend a ton of emotional capital in even doing this work, you know? And it's a brand-new proposition, you know? When I asked these retailers to commit to getting 15%, even the ones that were interested in doing it and brave enough to step forward, like Sephora, had to first do the work to even figure out where they were at, you know?

And when I first launched the pledge, people would say 15%, you know, that doesn't even seem like enough. And what we've sort of all come to find out is that the majority of retailers are pretty low there, you know, 1%, in some cases, 0%. So that has definitely stung?

Also, for every single yes that we've had, all 25 of these incredible businesses, there's also been some companies that haven't taken the pledge. And that's been tough, too. But I think, you know, part of that ride and part of that journey is really focusing and doubling down on the ones that are willing to do this work and not just right now, for the long term.

MARTIN: Artemis, has there been any backlash to Sephora's participation in the 15 Percent Pledge? Unfortunately, you know, we've seen backlash to a lot of things. And interestingly enough, former President Barack Obama has recently started talking about how he sees some of the political movements that have emerged as kind of a response to his presidency, which, you know, the way he said, it is two steps forward, one step back, and I'll take the one step back as long as we get the two steps forward.

So I want to ask you - have you had anything like that?

PATRICK: I mean, listen, in today's climate, we know that being outspoken about your values and beliefs will prompt discussion, you know? What is important to us, however, is that we need to be, continue to be true to our long-standing values of diversity, equity and inclusion and living them out through our actions.

MARTIN: Aurora, you know, when we spoke, when we last spoke, the fashion and beauty brands were the ones taking the lead with signing on to the pledge, like, as we said, Sephora the first on board, then Rent the Runway, WeWoreWhat. But now it seems like a broader array of retailers are signing on. What do you make of that? I'm thinking, like, West Elm, for example. What do you think that means?

JAMES: Yeah, I mean, I think we could even go broader, you know, in some of the industries that really should be participating in the pledge, you know, the Whole Foods, Krogers of the world. There's so much that needs to be done in that space. And smart CEOs understand that Black consumer spending is also growing incredibly fast, you know? They're expecting Black consumer spending to be over a trillion dollars by 2030. And I think that people want to make sure that they're really answering that call to have diverse products on their shelves. And they know that consumers need more than just, you know, one-time donations, that they actually actively need to be committing to change and committing to diversity and having a more broad product assortment.

MARTIN: Or, like, woke T-shirts, for example. People want more than...

JAMES: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...T-shirts with cool slogans on them (laughter).

JAMES: And consumers are smart. They want to know - like, OK, this T-shirt says woke. Where was it made? Who made it? How much were those people paid in that process? So, you know, they're definitely getting a lot hipper to this. And they're excited to also be spending their money at retailers that they believe are in line with their own values. And I think we're seeing that now more than ever.

MARTIN: Artemis, I can't ignore the fact that last year was a year of tremendous disruption and turmoil around the world. Yes, there are the social justice protests going on, also many of which were around the world but also the health crisis that disrupted supply chains.

PATRICK: Sure.

MARTIN: So I'm just saying there have been all these crazy things over the course of the year that affected retail. And did any of that affect this - the ability to...

PATRICK: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Make progress in this area?

PATRICK: You know, what I would say is it only made us more steadfast. You know, at the end of the day, this is what drove us to conduct a national study we commissioned on racially driven bias and unfair treatment in retail. So this is not about, you know, pounding your chest or doing something for Sephora. It was really just trying to understand what is going on in the retail industry. Of course, product representation on shelves is a part of it.

But, you know, from the study, we learned that 4 in 5 retail shoppers don't believe there is representation in brands or companies that are owned by and made for people of color. So, you know, taking this time and commitment - sure, we're working from home. But, you know, we have a lot of time to think about how we're going to continue our commitment. And this study just fueled our commitment even more.

MARTIN: So the last question for you both - what would you like to see happen next? Aurora, do you want to start?

JAMES: Sure, sure. I mean, I'm incredibly excited about what we've already accomplished. I think for me, it's really about, you know, seeing a whole group of incredible Black-owned businesses really grow and scale through our pledge takers, you know? I think, ultimately, that's the goal because in launching the pledge, it was really about supporting the Black community through supporting diverse founders, right? And I think that we've, you know, just hit the tip of the iceberg beginning to do that.

But, you know, through our pledge takers and their contractual commitments with us, we've ensured now that over $4 billion is going to be going to Black entrepreneurs across this country over the next two years. And, you know, that's a huge, huge, huge thing. And, you know, as a nonprofit organization, I'm just excited to continue to keep growing and expanding and, you know, ultimately seeing who's next to take the pledge.

MARTIN: When do you sleep? How do you - what? How are you doing...

JAMES: Oh, my gosh. Michel, never.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Never, never.

MARTIN: I mean...

JAMES: But it's all worth it.

MARTIN: ...You're still running your business.

JAMES: I know. I know. But that's the thing, you know? Black women - we're working overtime right now, so got to get it done.

MARTIN: OK. Artemis, what would you like to see happen next?

PATRICK: You know, I can speak specifically to beauty. And beauty has always been about self-expression, so it's very, very personal. And I think everyone has a personal beauty story, especially if you're a person of color in America. You know, I have my own. It's always been about my hair. I immigrated to the U.S. from Iran when I was 7 years old. And I spent my entire adolescent life trying to look like Farrah Fawcett, you know? But in reality, I have thick, curly hair, but there wasn't products for me. But this was the personification of beauty. And now that I have a daughter of my own, I see how she's embracing her curls. And she loves to see people that look like her making products for her. And at the end of the day, for me, that's real change.

MARTIN: Artemis Patrick is the head of merchandising at Sephora. That was the first major retailer to sign on to the 15 Percent Pledge last year. Aurora James is the creator of the 15 Percent Pledge. She owns the accessories label Brother Vellies. As we said, she's been calling on brands to dedicate 15% of shelf space to products created by Black-owned companies. Thank you both so much for talking with us. I do hope we'll talk again and, you know, keep hearing how it's going.

JAMES: Of course. Thank you so much, Michel. I so appreciate your time.

PATRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.