H&M’s diversity hire fails to address the root of fashion’s racism

After H&M was widely lambasted last week for an incident involving racist marketing, the company announced on Wednesday it appointed a diversity manager to prevent similar mishaps.

A spokesperson for H&M confirmed in an email that Annie Wu, formerly the global manager for employee relations at H&M’s headquarters in Stockholm, will assume the role, but the company declined to share specific details about the position. Her appointment, which was first alluded to on Instagram, is a direct response to an image on H&M website’s featuring a young African-American boy in a sweatshirt reading “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Many consumers protested the brand for the image due to its connection to historically bigoted imagery of black individuals as monkeys. Ambassadors including G-Eazy ended partnerships with the brand. Meanwhile, attempts by H&M to apologize fell on deaf ears.

H&M’s gaffe is just the latest example of the lack of attention paid to race and cultural appropriation within the fashion industry, joining the ranks of incidents like Chanel’s controversial “luxury boomerang” and Miu Miu using what appeared to be Nazi imagery in a 2017 collection. While brands like Gucci have started launching diversity committees to help inform design and marketing, many brands continue to ignore inclusivity initiatives, according to Keenan Beasley, co-founder of creative agency BLKBOX.

Beasley said, despite mild improvement in inclusive fashion marketing, for the most part, the industry is still failing to properly address these issues. While appointing a diversity manager is a crucial initial step in raising internal awareness around racial sensitivities, he said he’s skeptical about how much influence the hire will have, given there’s still a significant lack of people of color in C-suite positions at major retailers.

“It’s unlikely that someone in [a diversity manager role] will have real power in the organization,” he said. “I want to see some of these top leaders — CEOs, C-suite members, the executive board — take a stand on how they want to address it and set a tone for what they want in the company to make it a priority.”

A post on H&M’s Instagram account alluding to Wu’s appointment.

Jacques Bastien, founder of Shade, an influencer marketing agency that specializes in increasing diversity in campaigns, said that by failing to hire leaders of colors, not only do issues like the H&M sweatshirt fall through the cracks, but companies miss larger opportunities to maximize profit.

According to a study by McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for diverse representation in its workforce are 35 percent more likely to perform better than competitors. A similar report, released by Deloitte Australia, found that employees who believe their company is committed to diversity are 80 percent more likely to agree they work for a high-performing organization.

I don’t think H&M meant any harm by it. They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to go put this out and misrepresent a specific group.’ But it does speak to lack of inclusion internally,” Bastien said.

In the case of H&M, the sweatshirt caused an immediate short-term sales drop due to the temporary closure of select stores in South Africa. It also led to public denouncements of the company from design partners like The Weeknd, who took to social media to share he would be cutting ties to the business.

Whether Wu’s position proves to be a reactionary PR fix or not, Beasley said he anticipates it will focus on improving employee education around racial issues to better prevent marketing blunders. However, H&M’s expansive size may continue to serve as a barrier to preventing future oversights. Even at major companies with full teams dedicated to diversity, like Procter & Gamble and Unilever, snafus have persisted.

The diversity manager role is really tough to have bandwidth across a large organization,” Bastien said. “Is it realistic that this person can review every piece of creative that goes out the door? They’ll end up having to create a training program to create a culture of inclusivity and help lead a cultural shift. That’s where it’ll have impact.”

Ultimately, H&M may need a holistic overhaul that transcends the appointment of a diversity manager, said Omer Molad, CEO and co-founder of digital hiring assistant company Vervoe.  

“H&M would do well to consider appointing someone who can evangelize a mindset of cultural sensitivity and diverse thinking,” Molad said. “But that’s only step one. Longer term, H&M will be a better company if its workforce more closely resembles its customer base.”

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