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Not a Typical Discussion - The Black Lives Matter Movement and The Sewn Products Industry

Updated: Apr 3


In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is also facing a different kind of crisis as protesters take to the streets in support of racial equity. While not a typical issue of discussion for the sewn products industry, the widespread reach of the Black Lives Matter movement and related causes has made an impact on the industry, especially with brands and retailers.

Brands Speaking Out

Following the death of George Floyd, the final boiling point that roused protesters by the thousands, many brands and retailers came out in support of both the protests and the need for systemic change. Some pulled out their wallets, making significant contributions to groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the ACLU. Others used their social media platforms to speak out against racism, or, as was the case on June 2, 2020, blackout their social media altogether in a show of solidarity. LA-based Lucky Brand took it even further, choosing to close stores and shut down its website on June 2nd, encouraging employees to use their paid day off to demonstrate peacefully or help clean up destruction caused by looting in Los Angeles neighborhoods. The companies that drew the most praise, and in some cases the most criticism, are those that promised to do better, to embrace diversity and inclusivity in their brands.

These responses are not all that surprising as speaking out on socio-political issues is becoming more and more common in the public sphere. Neutrality may no longer be the safest or smartest decision for brands, especially those catering to Millennial or Gen Z customers. Notably, 81% of Gen Z and 70% of Millennials reportedly support the Black Lives Matter movement compared to 62% of Gen X and 56% of Baby Boomers.

A recent study, cited by Sourcing Journal, stated that Gen Z sees the Black Lives Matter movement as the second-most impactful event of their lifetimes (the Covid-19 pandemic was number one). The study claims 76% of Gen Z shoppers believe corporations play an important role in the United States and should use their influence to impact political and cultural issues and demand action from government entities to enact systemic change.

Even before the recent escalation, studies found that modern consumers increasingly expect the brands they buy to align with their values and speak up on socio-political topics. A recent Business of Fashion article highlights a 2018 statistic that “almost two-thirds of shoppers make buying decisions based on a brand’s position on social or political issues.” However, that article goes on to argue that a company’s decision on whether or not to speak out against racism should be based on morals, not sales. “Companies do not exist solely to benefit shareholders. They have duties to a wider set of stakeholders and society at large.”

Looting and Store Closings

The negative consequences of recent protests have also been felt across the industry as peaceful marches devolved into looting and property destruction in many major cities across the United States. In late May/early June, many retailers just beginning to open up again after Covid-induced lockdowns, were forced to board up windows and lock their doors once more. One of the hardest hit, Minneapolis-based Target temporarily closed 175 stores in an attempt to safeguard workers and minimize damage. In addition, stores across the country were forced to cut their operating hours in compliance with local government-enacted curfews as protests continued.

The looting and store closures understandably disheartened (and/or enraged) many in the retail, apparel, and sewn products industries, especially those already reeling from the impact of Covid-19. All of this piled on top of the thousands of store closings already reported in 2020 due to health concerns and financial strain.

One prominent brand, however, took it in stride. As one of only a handful of African-American chief executives currently in the Fortune 500, Tapestry (parent company of Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman) CEO Jide Zeitlin offered a personal, heartfelt assessment of racism in the United States in a LinkedIn letter to his employees. He stated: “We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others. Each of these black lives matter.”

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