“To any dark-skinned ladies, which beauty boxes have worked well for you?” wrote Reddit user @syd_shep on the site’s dedicated Beauty Box thread six months ago. Up until recently, the answer likely would have been none, but the last year or so has seen a much-welcome rise in subscription boxes that cater to women of color. Companies like Hues Box, Cocotique, The Ebony Box and Onyx have entered the market to fill a void previously stocked with products strictly for light-skinned, straight-haired women.
“People are starting to be vocal about what they’re not getting from subscription boxes,” said Jasmine Harris, a college professor who launched Hues Box in November of last year with her mother and younger sister. “Previously, since it was a new business model, everybody was focusing on what you were getting. Now, as it loses its novelty and we start to really dissect it, we see what it’s missing.”
Once-popular subscription services like Birchbox and Ipsy have come under fire as a result, with customers regularly highlighting their blindspots on social media, as Racked explored in-depth in July. Complaints range from being sent items that subscribers specifically asked not to receive again, to women of color receiving products like bronzer and dry shampoo that they have no use for.
“While some beauty boxes have offered customizability based on skin tone and color preferences in the past, they tend to offer a rather narrow range of colors,” said Eleanor Dwyer, a research analyst at Euromonitor International, which tracks industry trends. “Moreover, these colors have been more likely to cater to white consumers, as beauty brands have been disproportionately focused on this segment of the population.”
Products from one of Cocotique’s beauty boxes
Harris, a onetime Birchbox subscriber, explains that, despite filling out a detailed form about her hair texture and skin tone, the products she received were consistently off-base. After four years of frustration, which she spent hoping her next box would turn up with appropriate products, she finally unsubscribed and decided to go into business with her family.
“Multicultural consumers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, but they’re underserved by traditional beauty brands,” said Rachel Krautkremer, the insights and strategy director of youth-research firm Cassandra. “Entrepreneurs have had to pick up the slack.”
Dwyer agrees, noting that, while a few minority-focused beauty brands like Shea Moisture and Carol’s Daughter had previously entered the cosmetics space, beauty boxes typically seek to provide samples from a wider range of brands, most of which are inevitably lacking in their selection for women of color.
Hues Box solves this by buying products only from fellow entrepreneurs of color, who understand their customers’ needs and serve to benefit more from the partnership. “We have been approached by very large companies who make products that are more general health and beauty products, wanting to be included in the boxes, but this isn’t just about us picking products, putting them in a box and then sending them out so that we can collect money,” said Harris. “We think of [ourselves] as an intermediary — the plug, as the kids say — between these creators and audiences of color who are clamoring for products that are made for them.”
Which is to say, there’s a social justice element to their project, as well — one that’s in stark contrast to companies like Birchbox, which solicit samples from brands for free with the argument that they’ll benefit purely from exposure. “This ignores the fact that most small businesses don’t have the capital to provide 10,000 sample-size products for free without bankrupting themselves,” said Harris, who pays wholesale prices for all of the products included in Hues Box.
Products from one of Onyx’s beauty boxes
Marketing efforts by larger companies have been similarly weak on the diversity front. “The biggest question we get from potential subscribers is, ‘How does this work?’” said Harris, noting that many communities of color are still unfamiliar with the subscription box model. “I think that’s because some of the larger subscription boxes haven’t made a dedicated effort to reach out to communities of color and have, in some ways, been willfully ignorant of their needs.” As such, most women and men over the age of 25 who reach out with interest in the service need to be walked through the process.
By instilling their brand with values that transcend beauty, Hues Box appears to be on the right path. According to Cassandra’s recent Impact report, a majority of young consumers believe that brands have the power to better the world through social consciousness. 65 percent of American youth and 56 percent of British youth (ages 14 to 34) think companies, not governments, can and should make the bigger positive impact in this sphere. “Gen Z is the most diverse cohort in history, so companies that embrace inclusivity now will be better poised to earn their loyalty in the future,” said Krautkremer.
As such, larger beauty companies are, slowly but surely, taking note. “Mainstream and emerging cosmetics brands are extending their lines with a wider range of dark colors and minority-focused products,” said Dwyer. “For instance, MAC’s limited-edition Selena collection was so successful last year that the brand elected to re-release the collection after it sold out almost immediately.” L’Oréal Paris and Lancôme have also made efforts in recent years to expand their offerings for women of color.
But there’s still ample room for growth when it comes to the beauty industry’s embrace of diversity. Muslim women, for instance, are still largely underserved, Krautkremer points out. “Some estimate that the halal cosmetics market could be worth more than $52 billion by 2025, so ignoring the needs of Muslim women is shortsighted,” she said.
Smaller businesses in the vein of Hues Box may have to fill that gap, at first. As Krautkemer points out, larger companies who may have less intimate ties with the culture face “the challenge [of] practicing inclusivity while avoiding the pitfalls that come with stereotyping a population based on race or religion alone.”