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Does Activism Sell When Brands Don’t Mean It?

In the past few months, protests against police brutality and violence against Black Americans have broken out nationwide with nearly one in every major city. In response, people have felt inclined to speak out on these injustices, including major retail brands. It is important when brands with major influence speak out against discrimination and align their company missions with justice and activism, but what about those brands that don’t practice what they preach? 

It’s easy to see your favorite trendy brands post a black screen or hashtag to their social media that calls for change and believe that they stand with these ideas. Not only does it give these movements further exposure, but it also feels more ethical supporting brands that, in turn, support issues you care about. You feel better about spending your money on their products and supporting them. But do these brands always mean it? What happens if they don’t?

Reformation is a trendy brand, most popular with younger millennials and older gen Z-ers, known for ethical clothing manufacturing and a focus on sustainability. On the surface, this brand seems great—ethically sourced clothes that are always on-trend. No one was surprised when Reformation joined thousands of other brands and companies posting on their social media about Black Lives Matter. However, not even a week later, a new post appeared on the company’s social media on June 8th headed with a black square and the words “I’ve failed.” As it had turned out, not even a week after the initial call to action post, a former employee, Elle Santiago, had revealed in the comments that the brand had a hostile environment for its POC employees. Santiago detailed the way that Reformation founder, Yael Aflalo, ignored her in the office while complimenting her white colleagues. Further, she wrote in her comment, “I cried many times knowing the color of my skin would get me nowhere in this company,” expressing deep vulnerability in the comment and showing the hypocrisy in the company’s mistreatment of their nonwhite employees while leading the public to believe that they were a nondiscriminatory company with policies aligned with social justice when that was clearly not the truth. 

When Aflalo posted the apology message on social media, the fallout from usual avid buyers was apparent. Customers criticized the lack of authentic responsibility taken by the company in the post, the flimsy attempts to cover up their racism with mandatory “anti-racism” training for staff, and a change of leadership in the company from Aflalo. Comments on the post were relatively negative, including, “You cannot buy your way out of your despicable culture and your racism” in regards to the donations Aflalo made to the NAACP and other Black-centralized foundations and, “Anyone have other ethical brand recommendations out there I can shop at instead of this train wreck of a brand??” as customers made it clear that the company’s lies about their social values and less than genuine apology was the final straw in sending customers elsewhere. Although I am unsure of if Reformation has lost profits since having to own up and apologize for their racism and performative activism, you can find social media statistics and the brand has lost 55,920 instagram followers since June 8th, a clear indication of the steep decline in support for this company. 

Another major brand accused of and apologizing for racism within the company is Dollskill, a brand that focuses on alternative fashion with a similar age demographic to Reformation. The difference, however, is that this brand has not been shy when it has come to public controversy from selling a t-shirt with the words “goth is white” to selling a traditional Native American headdress as part of their festival collection among many of their insensitive blunders. When founder of Dollskill, Shoddy Lynn, posted a picture of police in front of the store and captioned it “Direct Action in its glory” and the Black Lives Matter hashtag, consumers were swift to call out the hypocrisy of the brand for trying to appear “woke” or passionate about social justice and activism when their actions made that far from true. Within days, an apology from Lynn appeared on social media on June 7th, apologizing for not using their platform well enough to uplift minority voices, and for not doing more than just being “passively ‘non-racist.’” In the apology, Lynn promised to purchase $1 million worth of products from Black designers for the brand and to donate $100,00 to the NAACP. 

 Much like with Reformation, this apology was vague and not even remotely enough for those affected by the brand’s insensitivity to accept. However, unlike Reformation, Dollskill disabled comments from their post to stifle public outrage. But just like Reformation, their Instagram statistics show that their company social media has lost 220,639 followers. A simple search of the brand’s name on Twitter shows countless people swearing to never support the company again and anger towards being misled on their mission for activism. 

 Now more than ever it is important for companies to use their platforms for social justice but actually mean it. Consumers want to spend their money on brands that align with their basic principles. While Reformation and Dollskill were not the only brands to have to apologize for insensitivity within the company while preaching otherwise, they were two major brands who lost a sizable amount of support. Promoting social justice issues is one thing, but genuinely practicing what is preached is an entirely other and is vital to the survival of a brand in 2020.

Madyn is a senior at Emmanuel College and studying English with a focus in writing and communications, as well as pursuing an art history minor. She loves all things vintage, Hozier, One Direction, and her cats. She is the 2021-2022 President for the Emmanuel College chapter!
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