Aurora James on the 15% Pledge
At Fashion Revolution, we know first-hand that the most central step in inciting industry change is to convince brands that their customers are demanding it. This past spring, as brands and platforms blacked out their Instagram feeds or posted messages in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, many of their customers began to wonder how much of this sentiment was genuine, and how much of it was public relations. Aurora James, creative director and founder of the pioneering brand, Brother Vellies, posted something else – an ask. The 15 Percent Pledge was born from this request, for retailers big and small to dedicate 15% of their shelf space (which represents the Black percentage of the US population) to Black-owned brands and businesses.
Below, we speak with Aurora about the rise of the 15 Percent Pledge, and how it’s revolutionizing the way that retailers and consumers think about buying as a tool to create more equity.
Bronwyn: This campaign is simple and solutional, and it really puts the power in the hands of citizens. When issues are systemic, there’s usually an accompanying feeling of ambiguity around how everyday people can actually make change. Here, anyone can call on brands they buy from to step up and take the pledge. How did this pledge come to be?
Aurora James: Following the tragic killing of George Floyd, I saw a lot of brands and retailers from across industries posting messages of solidarity with a vow to make change, but there seemed to be a lack of accountability for the systemic issues at play. This was also the time when small businesses, particularly Black-owned businesses, were suffering due to the pandemic. Statistics are showing that Black-owned businesses are hurting more than any other racial group, at least 40 percent of Black businesses will not survive. As a business owner, and a Black person, I felt something needed to happen. Many people came to and asked what they could do to help. Supporting and committing to the 15% Pledge is one way that I feel people can help create long term change. By urging major retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, we can effectively put billions of dollars back into Black communities.
Bronwyn: On social media, the pledge has been really vigilant at targeting specific multi-brand retailers. Have you been contacted by many of the brands you’ve targeted? What kind of responses have you seen from big brands?
Aurora: Just 10 days after the 15 Percent Pledge, we already had several conversations going and Sephora became the first major retailer to officially commit. We couldn’t have asked for anything better! Since then, we have announced West Elm, Rent the Runway, MedMen, Vogue US, and Yelp. We are still in conversations with several other retailers and are excited about the announcements rolling out in 2020.
Bronwyn: Beyond running this campaign, you are the founder of a pioneering sustainable fashion brand. How do supply chain ethics, responsible materials, artisanship and all the other elements of sustainable fashion tie into a vision for the fashion industry that champions Black business owners and creators?
Aurora: Brother Vellies has always been committed to honoring the people who make our products and the places where they are made. Because of this, we treat each step of our process with the utmost care for our artisans, our customers, and our planet. We never put our products on sale as we assign the value of each of them based on materials and fair labor practices, which we feel are unaffected by the traditional commercial consumption cycle. I hope that as an industry, we evaluate what business as usual looks like and start thinking more about our supply chain, how we are actually treating the people we work with, and what imagery we are putting out there to inspire people to shop. Often times, that content is rooted in making women feel less than and I think we should focus instead on having women feel like the best version of themselves.
Bronwyn: There’s also an individual side to the call to action, asking people to review their own spending and learn about how much money they contribute to black owned businesses. Have you seen a big uptake in the personal side to the campaign?
Aurora: We actually just rolled out our Consumer Commitment as a response to an overwhelming number of individuals asking – ‘how can I help?’, ‘Can I take the Pledge as an individual?’ And now we have laid out guidelines for that to happen.
Bronwyn: I did a mini review of my spending and came up pretty short. I only looked at one week (and given that the UK is semi-locked down, my spending is super boring right now). I found that only 7% of my spending went to a single Black-owned business. And, 65% went to businesses owned by white men. What’s worse is that most of my white man money represented the places I where my spending is recurring (a national grocery chain near my house, Apple, a UK bakery chain). My hunch is that part of the solution means supporting small businesses and shopping locally. Have you found this to be the case?
Aurora: Exactly. It’s about making conscious changes in your spending habits. That bakery, for example, you could seek out a Black-owned bakery that may make it easy for recurring purchases, or maybe they ship straight to you! It may seem challenging at first, but it becomes easier and easier as time goes on and you’ll probably feel better about your spending if you’re supporting small businesses.
Aurora: So much of our culture is inspired by Black people. Our heroes run the gamut from Black sports stars to musicians and from Black authors to politicians. Black people have created a culture that has supported some of our biggest brands making them a lot of money and creating mega-wealthy CEO’s while the financial inequality gap grows. The 15 Percent Pledge works to close that gap and redistribute wealth back into the Black community. Black people spend millions of dollars with these brands and retailers every day. If they value our money, then value us as well and show us that we are represented.