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What 'Diversity and Inclusion' Efforts Actually Look Like Behind the Scenes at Fashion Brands

This is what happens "post-discussion."
H&M's Ezinne Kwubiri speaking at a 'How I Get It Done' event in October 2019.

H&M's Ezinne Kwubiri speaking at a 'How I Get It Done' event in October 2019.

For the past several years, "diversity" and "inclusion" have been popular buzzwords in the fashion community. Brands, publications and even executives have used them in several contexts — to put out PR firestorms, to amplify internal efforts to make their workplaces more welcome, to participate in a larger cultural discourse. Beyond simply throwing those words around, some companies have gone as far as hiring chief diversity officers and creating Diversity and Inclusion (D&I for short) departments

The conversation may be trendier than ever before, but what impact can people in these positions have on the industry, specifically in regards to people from different racial groups, socioeconomic classes and abilities?

"We've entered a 'post-discussion' era," explains Joseph Maglieri, Head of Community Development at the CFDA. "No amount of social media posts will ever transcend taking real action. They want to see [brands] do it differently and can tell the difference between an exercise in public relations and effortful change."

Over the past few years, the CFDA has made efforts to outline ways that brands can make D&I a core part of their business strategy and growth. It has released a study on gender inequality in fashion, hosted a Black Fashion Founders forum, explored the impact of Donald Trump's administration on immigration policy and published a briefing on diversity and inclusion in regards to leadership practices. But even that that won't accomplish much without active participation from the brands themselves.

One that's gotten attention for its work on D&I, specifically in terms of hires, is H&M. It brought on Annie Wu to oversee the company's global D&I work — both internally and externally (i.e. products and campaigns) — from its Stockholm headquarters, and Ezinne Kwubiri to head them up in North America.

For Kwubiri, the first step of the job was bringing awareness to the issue — "just a sense of education and knowledge and having D&I at the forefront of the entire company's mind when they are doing work so it's not isolated to just the work that I am doing," she explains. "How does it impact marketing? How does it impact HR? How does it impact our global mobility programs?" 

In addition to the company's standard unconscious bias training, Kwubiri has introduced another program into the H&M corporate structure called "Layers," which she describes as "more of an interactive internal workshop."

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"It really challenges the attendees to take a look at what is their individual contribution to inclusion and diversity and what gaps do they think are missing and how is their team structured," she says, noting how H&M's executive team has participated. (The program has yet to expand to retail employees, who, for now, continue to complete unconscious bias training.)

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For brand that operates at a global scale, taking this type of action shows a willingness on the corporate side to invest in D&I — and, according to Kwubiri, it is quite an investment: "You can't just hire the person and put them in the role. They need resources and they also need a budget. They need to be able to run a program, bring in trainers, get a consultant, go to a conference. They need all of that type of information." That means everything from adding head counts, to attending conferences, to making recruiting trips at HBCUs and other institutions.

The conversation around D&I is a global one — and one with global repercussions. A recent legal settlement between Italian fashion house Prada and the New York City Commission on Human Rights is a prime example: Following blowback from a downtown New York window display, the New York Times reports that the brand settled with the Commission by agreeing to "internal re-education, engaging in financial and employment outreach with minority communities, and submitting to external monitoring of its progress for the next two years." 

According to the Times, Prada is not the only foreign brand that the Commission is holding accountable for racists or culturally insensitive acts: Gucci and Christian Dior have also been in discussions with the Commission following their own incidents. It highlights the fact that sensitivities and expectations vary across the globe.

"The cultural and social climates across 'fashion capitals' are not uniform," says Maglieri. "Recognizing these unique differences and nuances is critically important to the discussion and the work."

Kwubiri agrees: "Each of these major continents or countries need to take their cultural and historical perspectives into consideration when they are thinking about how they create their D&I strategy."

During a time when customers are demanding transparency about where products are made, who is making them and how they're marketed, D&I has emerged as more than just a helpful tool to improve workplace demographics and settle negative PR. It helps public-facing companies atone for past bad behavior and, perhaps, most importantly, create opportunities for communities to break through the predominately white veil of the fashion industry. (Think of Gucci's partnership with Dapper Dan or how Ava DuVernay sits on Prada's Diversity committee.) It leaves room for the creation of better, more diverse product offerings and imagery that actually reflects culture. 

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