Black-owned busi­nesses de­serve re­tail space in Canada

U.S. move­ment call­ing on stores to do bet­ter res­onates here, too


On May 25, Ge­orge Floyd died at the hands of Min­neapo­lis police. Four days later, as mass protests kicked off across the United States in re­sponse, Toronto-born, Brook­lyn-based Black de­signer and ac­tivist Aurora James jot­ted down an idea, took a photo of it and shared it with her 128,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers. The post went vi­ral, and the 15 Per­cent Pledge was born, a per­sonal plea-turned-non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion fight­ing for eco­nomic equal­ity in the U.S, where Black-owned busi­nesses cur­rently rep­re­sent only 1.3 per cent of sales.

“We are wait­ing and we are not go­ing any­where. When will you take the pledge?” wrote James via the @15per­cent­pledge In­sta­gram ac­count.

The con­cept is star­tling in its sim­plic­ity, call­ing on ma­jor re­tail­ers to al­lo­cate 15 per cent of their shelf space to Black­owned busi­nesses in di­rect cor­re­la­tion to the Black pop­u­la­tion in the United States. It’s both a small ask and a sig­nif­i­cant one, with the pledge fo­cus­ing on big play­ers such as Sephora, Whole Foods, Net-A-Porter, Shop­bop, Ulta Beauty and Tar­get.

I first met Aurora in 2014 when she launched Brother Vel­lies, her line of African­made footwear and ac­ces­sories, and I have cov­ered her work ex­ten­sively since. I ad­mire that she isn’t afraid to speak out against racism in the fash­ion in­dus­try, even if that means con­fronta­tions with the axis of power.

Her ap­proach ap­pears to be work­ing. As the pledge gath­ered mo­men­tum via a pe­ti­tion and #black­lives­mat­ter so­cial me­dia pres­sure, Sephora signed on, a huge step for the LVMH-owned beauty be­he­moth. As of press time, the other big play­ers men­tioned have re­mained mum.

Aurora had an­other pointed ask, which felt rather per­sonal: She wanted white women, with all our col­lec­tive spend­ing might, priv­i­lege and new-found re­al­iza­tion that we are in­ad­ver­tently sup­port­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­crim­i­na­tory or­ga­ni­za­tions, to take the pledge and run with it. “You do the count­ing. You do the work for us,” she wrote.

I felt com­pelled to do some­thing be­yond just as­sist­ing her vol­un­teers in tal­ly­ing num­bers, which were piti­ful. For ex­am­ple, of Shop­bop’s 937 brands, we found just 12 are from Black de­sign­ers.

But it’s not enough to just look down dis­ap­prov­ingly at yet an­other frac­tured sys­tem in the

U.S. In­stead, let’s aban­don our racism su­pe­ri­or­ity com­plex and look in­ward at how Cana­dian re­tail­ers stack up. Are they any bet­ter in a coun­try where, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent cen­sus, five per cent of the pop­u­la­tion iden­ti­fies as In­dige­nous, 3.5 per cent Black and 22.3 per cent iden­tify as vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties? The an­swer is no and non. I as­sem­bled a squad of re­cent jour­nal­ism school graduates from across Canada to help me re­search more than 3,200 global brands. As you might imag­ine, most re­tail­ers do not pub­licly share these can-of-worms di­ver­sity sta­tis­tics, so we must al­low for a small mar­gin of hu­man er­ror. I wish our find­ings are some­how grossly in­ac­cu­rate; cor­po­rate reps, please cor­rect me if I have missed any Black and/or In­dige­nous brands car­ried at your stores. I would love to be wrong.

Let’s first look at Holt Ren­frew, the coun­try’s most pres­ti­gious de­part­ment store chain. Across its 285 brands, only 12 are Cana­dian. Three have Black cre­ative di­rec­tors. None are In­dige­nous. This ex­cludes heiress Alexan­dra We­ston’s H Project, which I view as more of a mar­ket­ing ini­tia­tive to high­light small de­sign­ers in select stores for a short run. I’m look­ing at real investment in BIPOC­founded brand growth among items car­ried reg­u­larly across all of the stores, of which there is next to none.

Next we looked at Shop­pers Drug Mart, a cos­met­ics and beauty pow­er­house with more than $11 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue. It cur­rently car­ries 204 brands; of those, only 13 are Cana­dian and just three are Black. Zero are In­dige­nous. How about dis­tribut­ing some of that wealth and op­por­tu­nity more eq­ui­tably, and amongst Cana­dian en­trepreneur­s from marginal­ized groups? In the beauty space, there is an abun­dance: from pop­u­lar Indige­nousowned Cheek­bone Beauty to Black-founded lux­ury skin care la­bel Okoko Cos­mé­tiques.

Que­bec City’s ven­er­a­ble Simons has 15 stores in Canada and car­ries 520 brands. Of those, 136 are Cana­dian and seven are Black. While it re­cently col­lab­o­rated with eight In­dige­nous artists and de­sign­ers on a ter­rific sea­sonal cap­sule en­ti­tled IFWTO + Edito par Simons, they only stock three on an on­go­ing ba­sis. Mean­while, SSENSE, Mon­treal’s e-com­merce ar­biter of worldly ex­per­i­men­tal­ism from Syr­ian-born broth­ers Rami, Bas­sel and Fi­ras Atal­lah, cur­rently sells 426 brands. From our find­ings, just 13 are Cana­dian, 17 are Black and zero are In­dige­nous. There cer­tainly isn’t a short­age of lo­cal ta­lent. May I sug­gest adding de­sign­ers War­ren Steven Scott, a mem­ber of the Nlaka’pa­mux Na­tion, and Evan Ducharme, who is Métis, to the mix? Both have been fea­tured by Amer­i­can Vogue’s first Ojibwe fash­ion scribe, Chris­tian Al­laire.

The fact that only one of the 1,832 brands cur­rently listed on the web­site of Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany, where I once worked as as­so­ciate fash­ion di­rec­tor, is In­dige­nous is per­fectly in line with its prob­lem­atic legacy. The com­pany al­most had us with Na­tive Union, a Hong Kong tech ac­ces­sories brand, and Na­tive Youth, a Bri­tish fash­ion brand from a de­signer of East In­dian-de­scent. Fur­ther­more, it seems just 289 of its brands are Cana­dian these days, and only nine are Black.

Con­sider this an ur­gent call for re­tail­ers in Canada to im­me­di­ately take the pledge. White peo­ple, are you with me? Aurora has enough on her plate try­ing to fix Amer­ica.

It’s time to start mak­ing it right, Canada. It’s time to take the pledge.

Mosha Lundström Halbert is a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary fash­ion jour­nal­ist, en­tre­pre­neur and on-air personalit­y. She con­trib­utes to CBC’s q, Vogue, Cul­tured and City­line, among oth­ers. To­gether with her mother and sis­ter, she is the co­founder of out­er­wear la­bel Therma Ko ta.

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