As protests over police brutality swept the country in recent weeks and major retailers posted messages of solidarity with black Americans on social media, Aurora James, a creative director in Brooklyn, asked herself if she actually felt like those brands were standing with her as a black woman and business owner.
“The answer was I didn’t,” Ms. James, 35, said in an interview. “I started thinking — black people do not feel supported. I do not feel supported.”
On May 29, she jotted down an idea for what could change that and posted it to Instagram: What if major retailers like Walmart, Sephora, Target and Whole Foods started devoting 15 percent of their shelf space to products from black-owned businesses to align with the population of African-Americans in the United States? It would fuel the growth of the brands and attract new investments that would ultimately extend to black communities, she wrote.
Her proposal, which quickly rocketed around social media, is now known as the 15 Percent Pledge and has caught the attention of its intended audience. On Wednesday, Sephora’s U.S. business said that it would make the pledge and create an advisory group that would include Ms. James and leaders of brands owned by people of color to help it make changes.
“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,” said Artemis Patrick, chief merchandising officer of Sephora. “We recognize we can do better.”
Sephora currently works with roughly 290 brands in the United States, where it has more than 400 stores plus locations in J.C. Penney. The company said it sold nine black-owned brands, including Fenty Beauty and Pat McGrath Labs.
Sephora, which is owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said it was committed to the three stages of the pledge that Ms. James outlined: figuring out the current percentage of shelf space and contracts dedicated to black-owned businesses, identifying concrete next steps to increase that number, and taking action by publishing and executing a plan “for growing the share of black businesses Sephora helps empower to at least 15 percent.”
Ms. James. said that she was also in talks with Rent the Runway to sign the pledge, and had been urging Target to sign on through Instagram posts. Rent the Runway and Target did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“The data exists that these black businesses exist and they’re wonderful — I buy black products often and as someone in the fashion industry, some of my favorite designers are black,” said Ms. James, the founder of Brother Vellies, a luxury accessories brand in New York that works with artisans globally. “It’s not that there’s a lack of product available, it’s just that people are not supporting it in the right way. They don’t have the means to develop and grow their brands in the same way.”
The pledge is a “lofty goal” but it’s attainable, she said.
The effort from Ms. James comes as major corporations grapple with their own roles in contributing to systemic inequality in the United States and their often shoddy track records when it comes hiring, promoting and fairly compensating black men and women. Some have also been sharply criticized for recent messages of support that have been vague or even hypocritical, and failed to include concrete steps around how the companies planned to support black communities.
The idea behind the 15 percent pledge is to move beyond one-time donations and to create longer-lasting change at retailers, Ms. James said. That would then have a longer-term impact on black-owned businesses.
For example, Sephora said it would provide connections and support to black-owned businesses from funders and venture capitalists and evolve its existing incubation programs to “focus on women of color.”
“It’s not just writing a purchase order for black-owned businesses and putting them online and hoping they do well,” Ms. James said. “I want them to take their time and map out a strategy — what that onboarding looks like, how to support them with marketing, how to make sure they’re connected to the right people.”