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Lo-res_135390969-SPeter Drucker once famously proclaimed that, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Embracing that notion, The New York Times recently conducted an in-depth, quantitative analysis of whether and to what extent various actors in the fashion industry—including designers, models, photographers, and other publications—had achieved the diversity goals they set.

During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, many of these actors committed to enhancing racial diversity in the fashion world. These commitments included pledging to hiring more people of color throughout their organizations, purchasing from more Black-owned suppliers, and ensuring greater representation in marketing materials and editorial content. The research effort undertaken by the newspaper might not be conventional marketing research with consumers, but it reveals some notable findings that can drive marketers’ ongoing choices and actions.

Let’s consider the sample. The Times sought to interview or requested responses to surveys from 64 major fashion brands, located throughout the world. It also included 15 retailers that sell high-fashion items, whether in physical channels or online. Then the reporters requested comments from 5 fashion magazines that exert strong influences over emerging fashion trends.

A first key finding was that most of these actors did not want to talk about diversity issues. The authors highlight that the majority of retailers and fashion magazines simply refused to answer. Among the designer brands, 9 cited European privacy laws that prevented them from categorizing employees by race, 16 answered at least some of the questions, and just 4 sought to answer each question included. All the rest refused to participate or sent only rote responses that they had published previously, such as vague statements indicating their dedication to diversity.

Seeking further insights from another source, the journalists reviewed the covers of major fashion magazines, as well as advertising campaigns. The numbers there revealed greater representation, such that across international editions of Vogue for example, 9 out of 20 covers featured Black people. The Times also noted increased participation by Black photographers. But the authors also caution that such evidence requires continued monitoring, due to the risk that publications might have responded to the compelling impetus of Black Lives Matter in 2020, but then go back to their old habits in the future.

Moreover, modeling and photography shoots involve short-term contracts, rather than permanent employment. The leadership of the companies surveyed remains overwhelmingly White and male, both in terms of the business leadership and the designers that helm the collections. Rihanna was hailed for her Fenty label, but when she stepped away, it meant that no luxury fashion brands are run by Black women. 

When people agreed to respond to the questions and sought to offer explanations for their diversity achievements, or lack thereof, many of them noted the pressures of COVID-19 that arose nearly in parallel with the societal demands raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. As sales and revenues plummeted due to the virus, many fashion houses, retail brands, and retailers sought to cut costs by reducing their workforce. But to increase diversity, by definition they would have needed to expand their employee rolls by hiring more people of color.

Others protested that a singular focus on representation of Black participants in the fashion industry represents an overly narrow view of diversity. They highlight the presence of more women in positions of power and note their inclusion of people with disabilities and those who embrace gender nonconformity as evidence of their ethical stances. 

Such discussions clearly must go beyond simple numbers and accounting. But they also should include detailed and careful analyses, because otherwise, even actors that want to live up to their diversity commitments cannot know the way forward.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What other sorts of measures would be helpful to enable the fashion industry to improve its diversity?
  2. Did any of the reported data surprise you? Which pieces of information, and why do you find it surprising?

Source: Vanessa Friedman, Salamishah Tillet, Elizabeth Paton, Jessica Testa, and Evan Nicole Brown, “The Fashion World Promised More Diversity. Here’s What We Found,” The New York Times, March 4, 2021