Since The BLM Protests, Have Beauty Brands Made Any Real Strides Towards Diversity?

Photo by Shingi Rice.
The day George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin is one we will never forget. It showed that racial injustice could no longer be denied. Alongside Floyd, the loss of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and numerous other innocent Black lives sparked protests all around the world this time last year, as people of all races and backgrounds came together under the Black Lives Matter movement to call for change.
Amid the protests, the pain and the signatures were the many pledges: choruses of non-Black people echoing "I will never understand, but I stand", not to mention the books and articles on anti-racism. The black squares that filled Instagram, Twitter and Facebook timelines for Blackout Tuesday were arguably the loudest, with a vast majority of beauty brands among those calling for change. Big-name companies and more under-the-radar brands took to social media in droves to express solidarity with the worldwide BLM protests and to push for inclusivity in the beauty industry.
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Inclusivity should always have been at the forefront for beauty brands but many finally acknowledged that their shade ranges need to be wider; that they need to diversify the content creators they work with; that they must show better representation of all skin tones on their social media feeds. But talk is cheap. Brands were swamped with comments from consumers asking why they were only now speaking up about changes that could have been implemented years ago. Other companies chose not to engage with comments at all, though plenty took the approach of reaffirming their pledges without dwelling on the past.

Big-name companies and more under-the-radar brands took to social media in droves to express solidarity with the worldwide BLM protests and to push for inclusivity in the beauty industry.

The truth is, the beauty industry has long lacked representation of all skin tones, especially in the Black community. As a Black beauty journalist, I have become immune to the excitement surrounding hyped-up beauty launches as, more often than not, the shade ranges are disappointing – and predictable. I often question how a beauty range can be put into production with 50 shades of white and there not be a single employee in uproar. I’ve found that shade ranges of concealer and foundation are almost always off in one way or another – either the shade is too light or too dark, or there's hardly any choice. So much time is spent making sure a product is sustainable and Instagrammable but why, in 2021, isn't the same energy going into ensuring shade ranges are inclusive for all? Has anything actually changed in the last year or were they simply empty promises?
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Sadly, it seems strides towards diversity are small. Makeup artist and content creator Wendy Asumadu is one of the hundreds of beauty enthusiasts on social media who receive new beauty products to try out and share with followers. In March this year, she took to Instagram to express her disappointment after swatching the three darkest foundation shades which she received from a popular beauty brand. It’s clear that no real attempt was made by this brand to ensure the shades were a good match for darker skin tones. In the video, Wendy said: "There is no shade range there, and you know what makes me feel worse about this? I’m not the darkest person in the world and I can’t even begin to imagine how they feel." This is just one of countless situations where Black people continue to be excluded from an industry which loves to make a song and dance about diversity and inclusivity.
It's exasperating that so many vowed to do better last year but are yet to do anything at all. "I felt left out," Wendy told R29. "I felt that I didn't matter and I wasn't as important as people with fairer skin tones." I agree with Wendy. I recently came across a new, raved about foundation which was propelled to fame on TikTok. Hoping to bag it, I searched for it across multiple UK beauty retailers but was unsurprised to see that the darker shades of the foundation weren’t yet available. Despite this, retailers still sold the lighter shades. The revelation came just nine months after the same retailers (and the same brand) pledged not to do this very thing.
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Consumers have long held brands accountable for not being cruelty-free and doing their part to help the environment. In turn, a handful of brands have stopped testing on animals, manufactured more sustainable packaging and created dedicated sections on their websites to highlight these changes. However, it is hard to ignore that beauty brands are still turning a blind eye to their sheer lack of inclusivity, even after they assured us they wouldn't. Why is it that the same progress made for animals and the environment can’t be extended to Black people?

Throwing money at a situation is lazy activism and doesn't solve any of the symptomatic causes behind the very explicit racism both in society and the beauty industry itself. To galvanise real, impactful change, brands need to continually educate themselves on the Black experience.

rhea Cartwright
Rhea Cartwright, beauty editor at The Stack and founder of Nah Femme, says the lack of response doesn't come as a shock. "Having worked in the beauty industry for a decade, I’m not surprised that a year on from the visceral performative activism and arbitrary posting of black squares that nothing has ultimately changed." Rhea continues: "The clear lack of inclusivity and representation from the shop floor to the C-suite is indicative that brands ultimately do not care about supporting their Black consumers or value their potential expenditure."
Last June, Los Angeles-based beauty reporter Darian Harvin and producer Dyana Larios created a document that listed responses from major beauty brands to the death of George Floyd, police brutality and BLM protests. It lists the date the company responded, if they are Black-owned, a link to their Instagram post, and any further actions or monetary donations they made to support the cause. A year on, it holds the names and actions (if any) of 161 beauty brands, though looking at the list it is evident that some haven't made strides towards diversity. Rhea says that any pledge is only as good as the mission behind it. "Throwing money at a situation is lazy activism and doesn’t solve any of the symptomatic causes behind the very explicit racism both in society and the beauty industry itself. To galvanise real, impactful change, brands need to continually educate themselves on the Black experience. This is not the time nor the place for an 'anti-racist book club' to show allyship." She adds: "Far beyond optics and profit margins, how can any global beauty behemoth aim to represent global markets if Black people are continually left out of the conversation?"
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Another initiative holding brands accountable is Pull Up For Change, which was established by Sharon Chuter, CEO and creative director of UOMA Beauty. It challenges brands to share stats on the number of Black people currently employed at corporate and executive levels of their business. "I thought it up and then it was live in less than 48 hours," Sharon told R29. "It was that reaction of grief, pain and anger all at the same time." Sharon wanted to create something where consumers could start uncovering issues and the power of change and solution and succession, in the hope that companies would confront the role they continue to play in upholding systemic racism.
Less than a few days after the black squares and public statements from countless brands, newly diversified Instagram feeds went back to their old ways. Makeup artist Joy Adenuga spoke to R29 about her experience. "It’s incredibly frustrating to know you’re good at your job but get sidelined due to race," she said. When last year's BLM protests began, like many other Black people, Joy (who recently launched her own collection of makeup brushes, eyelashes and accessories, By Joy Adenuga) found herself inundated with social media shoutouts and work requests. "I lost count of how many brands suddenly remembered I existed during the period when the conversation was really at the forefront of media and online. Barely a month later, a good portion of it disappeared again." 
Opening your purse is a start in supporting Black people but brands have the ability to contribute so much more. "Last time we essentially got the consumers to call these brands out," explains Sharon. Now, Pull Up For Change is reaching out to brands to collect data that can be shared on their page this June. Sharon says: "I don’t think it’s appropriate to call out brands again this year, because if one year later you don’t understand the use and the need for it, then don’t worry about it. There’s no point in us forcing people to be part of the change."
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There are beauty brands making some positive changes. This includes Lush, which created the Beyond The 100 Day Plan between June and October 2020 to detail how it plans to sustain support for the Black Lives Matter movement and embed anti-racism into the business. Its April 2021 update touched on a number of adjustments, including auditing Lush products to ensure equality, diversity and inclusion values are incorporated. Sarah Sango created Lush's afro hair collection, which does everything from defining coils to servicing your scalp. The brand's Oxford Street store displays its afro hair products where they can’t be missed – this is an important step in the right direction when you consider that afro hair is often overlooked on UK high streets. However, there is still a long way to go. Celebrity hairstylist Dionne Smith is passionate about people and beauty brands becoming more educated in the beauty space. "There is so much culture attached to afro hair and it has always troubled me that people can call themselves hairdressers but can’t cater to all hair types," she says. "It’s still hard for me to swallow how afro hair is not a mandatory module in education."
In terms of makeup, e.l.f. Cosmetics teamed up with Black Girls CODE, an organisation dedicated to increasing the number of women of colour in the digital space. e.l.f. says it will continue to work with Black Girls CODE to advance its mission. Boots has also started to offer more diverse brands like UOMA, MAC Cosmetics and NARS. Boots told Refinery29 of other changes they’ve incorporated over the past 12 months, which include stocking over 155 products for wavy and curly hair and recently expanding its textured haircare offering from 200 to 600 stores across the country.
Despite some brands having made improvements over the past year, non-Black beauty businesses still have a lot to do. Pledges should extend far beyond 12 months; they need to be incorporated permanently. It’s not enough to praise Fenty Beauty for how inclusive they’ve continued to be. It’s time we stopped asking why Fenty Beauty and other Black-owned beauty brands are the only ones to consider inclusivity, and start to question why others still don’t understand. It's key to support Black-owned beauty brands, too, such as The Glowcery, Emolyne Cosmetics, Freya + Bailey and By Jess D. And big-name brands like Pat McGrath Labs, Charlotte Mensah, UOMA Beauty and Bouclème continue to cater to all.
It may feel exhausting but content creator Mela, who works with a number of beauty brands, says it's crucial to continue to hold the beauty industry accountable. "If you say you’re going to do something, then do it. It benefits both your brand and the consumer." I have to agree: if the last 12 months have taught us anything, it’s that pressure is often what makes a breakthrough. Yes, it's disappointing, as beauty brands shouldn’t have to be dragged by consumers in order to provide the bare minimum. What's more, it is not the job of Black people to call for change, and it's okay for Black people not to want to waste energy on brands that can’t be persuaded. But it is obvious that there is still a long way to go until we can call the beauty industry inclusive rather than performative.

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