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This Group is Holding Brands Accountable for Real Inclusivity in Retail

As major retailers and brands continue to face a reckoning amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, this organization is finding a way to hold them accountable…

Racism and discrimination are now the number one problem that Gen Z and Millennials believe they face today, with more saying this is the biggest issue for their generation than those who name COVID-19. After the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death, brands and influencers began to voice their support—with some missteps. But young people actually want brands to be vocal if it’s followed up with clear actions toward change—and their expectations have led to a newfound reckoning. YPulse found that 69% of 16-34-year-olds actually want brands to support the movement, with authenticity and clear steps lined up about how they plan to follow through with their statements. 

In the last few months, campaigns have been cropping up to make sure major brands and retailers follow through with their social media statements and promises. 15 Percent Pledge is one of those leaders holding brands accountable and asking more to join the movement. The nonprofit organization is trying to give Black people fair space and inclusion in retail. According to the group, Black people in the U.S. make up nearly 15% of the population, so they’re calling on major retailers to commit a “minimum of 15% of their shelf life to Black-owned businesses.”

We spoke to 15 Percent Pledge’s Founder Aurora James about what the initiative is working for, why it’s important for brands to be involved in anti-racism, and more:

YPulse: How did 15 Percent Pledge start? 

Aurora James: Right after the tragic killing of George Floyd, I saw a lot of brands and retailers from across industries posting messages of solidarity and a vow to change, but there seemed to be a lack of accountability for the systemic issues at play. At the same time, small businessesparticularly Black-owned businesseswere suffering due to the pandemic. Over 40% of Black-owned businesses will not survive this global health crisis. As a Black business owner and a Black person, this information was tearing me up, and this is how the 15 Percent Pledge came to life. If we can urge major retailers to allocate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, we can effectively put billions of dollars back into the Black community that will create long term, sustainable change. Black people in this country deserve more than a one-time handout. We need inclusion and investment in our communities. 

YPulse: Who are some of the retailers and brands that have pledged and gotten involved so far? 

AJ: Sephora was the first major retailer to commit to the 15 Percent Pledge. Since then we have also had West Elm, Rent the Runway, MedMen, Vogue U.S., and Yelp.

YPulse: Why are brands a vital part of supporting anti-racism?

AJ: Brands, specifically major retailers, have huge economic influence. We calculated that if all four major retailers we originally called out committed to the Pledge, we could effectively put $14.5 billion back into the Black community, aiding in closing the gap in financial inequality. The 15 Percent Pledge urges major retailers to explore brands that they may have previously turned a blind eye to. Black-owned businesses often can’t get the credit they need to expand, studies consistently find that they experience higher denial rates when applying for credit. And if they do manage to secure a loan, they will often pay higher interest rates. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, 95% of Black-owned businesses were unlikely to receive the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the most significant pot of money Congress offered to small businesses in the CARES Act. Because of these reasons, it is harder for Black-owned businesses to thrive in today’s economy. If a brand walks into a bank with a purchase order from Whole Foods or Sephora, that lends a ton of credibility.

YPulse: What steps do brands have to take to pledge? 

AJ: There are three major steps that we ask retailers to complete when committing to the 15% Pledge. Step one is to take stock of the current percentage of shelf-space and contracts given to Black-owned businesses and suppliers. Step two is to take ownership of your findings, thoroughly interrogating how existing blind spots and biases within your company and society at large have led to the disparities – and what concrete steps you can take to address them. We ask the retailers to publish these findings internally and externally, not as a shaming tool, but to then use the findings to inform a brand-new vision for “business as usual.” Lastly, take action! Define and publish a plan for growing the share of Black businesses on their shelves to a minimum of 15%, with a clear strategy to stay accountable and transparent around the commitment. We aren’t asking for this to happen overnight. This strategy should include benchmarks to hit attainable goals in whatever time frame the business deems necessary. 

YPulse: What steps are you taking to ensure that brands follow through with their pledge?

AJ: After working with each retailer to put together a clear strategy with attainable goals, we have scheduled check-ins to ensure that they are on track to hit their goals. Our team can help identify, train, and support an expert, that is a partner to the Pledge, to help guide the retailer through its Pledge and DNI work as well. We hold each of these retailers accountable to ensure that this work continues. 

YPulse: Our research found that 69% of Gen Z and Millennials think brands should show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Are you seeing that in the midst of the ongoing protests that more young consumers are supporting Black-owned and led brands and products? 

AJ: Yes, definitely. Young consumers are the ones affecting so much change right now. They are fighting for transparency and they are using their purchases as power transactions. It’s incredible. 

YPulse: Are you seeing that more brands are making genuine attempts to offer more diverse and inclusive products? 

AJ: I see brands making attempts. But the real question is: Are they going to continuously make a conscious change to offer more diverse and inclusive products? As I mentioned earlier, we have seen a lot of brands and influencers from across industries posting messages of solidarity, but not actually changing anything about their business. They say they stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, but don’t have diversity in their board rooms or in the content they put out. The goal of the 15 Percent Pledge is that we instill long-term change within these retailers buying strategy and that they continue to invest in the future of the Black community. Fifteen percent is the least they can do. I hope that as an industry, we continue to evaluate what business as usual looks like and start thinking more about our supply chain, how we actually treat the people we work with, and what imagery we are putting out there to inspire people to shop because often times, a lot of it has been rooted in trying to make us feel less than, and I think we should try to focus instead on having everyone feel like the best versions of themselves. This is what meaningful change can look like. 

YPulse: The 15 Percent Pledge Instagram directly calls out brands—how do you think social media has changed activism?

AJ: I think it has given everyone a voice. Some people obviously have bigger platforms than others, but if you can get through to one person who follows you, that’s already a huge step in the right direction. I was saying to my team the other night that if we can get even just three people who may not have voted before to get to the polls, we’ve done a good job. 

YPulse: How have expectations around brands’ involvement in social good changed in recent years?

AJ: Spending your money with a brand is a power transaction. By choosing to support a specific brand, you are choosing to support their brand practices, ethos, and values. Why would you want to use your money to support a brand that doesn’t stand for the same things you do? As a consumer, you have that power. 

YPulse: What’s next for 15 Percent Pledge? 

AJ: We actually just rolled out our Consumer Commitment–a way for individuals to take the Pledge in their own lives. It is built around taking inventory of one’s own spending power and what businesses they purchase from; as well as calibrating that spending power so that 15% of monthly buying goes towards Black-owned businesses. And we will just continue working to bring on more major retailers in order to fight for financial equality for Black owned businesses. 


Toronto-native and New York City-transplant, Aurora James is the Creative Director and Founder of luxury accessories brand Brother Vellies. Founded in 2013 with the goal of keeping traditional African design practices and techniques alive, while also creating and sustaining artisanal jobs, Brother Vellies is now handmade across the globe. Prior to founding Brother Vellies, James amassed an impressive resume of industry experience. Her background in fashion, journalism, art, music, photography, and horticulture joins a forever-passion for artisanship, design, and humanitarianism to create truly one-of-a-kind pieces that you will have in your wardrobe forever. In May 2020, James launched the 15 Percent Pledge, a non-profit urging major retailers to allocate 15% of their shelf space to Black owned brands in the fight for economic equality.