In the summer of 2020, the fashion industry called for change. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, businesses of all sizes and scopes denounced racism, and committed to prioritising diversity and inclusion in all its forms.
Two years on, and MBS has partnered with the British Fashion Council to examine whether this intention has been turned into action. Are fashion companies committing to D&I? Does the industry’s leadership reflect the communities it serves? And are fashion businesses really promoting inclusion?
Our latest report asks these questions. The research is based on comprehensive analysis of leadership diversity from more than 100 fashion businesses operating in Europe of all sizes, ownership types and sub-sectors, combined with insights from in-depth conversations with CEOs, Chairs and HRDs about how D&I is really being addressed.
Earlier this week, it was a real delight to launch the report at the BFC’s Institute of Positive Fashion Forum. Held at 180 The Strand, the event brought industry leaders together to discuss how to make our sector a more positive, inclusive and sustainable place.
“The last few years have provided a critical moment of self-reflection for the fashion industry,” said Jamie Gill, Chair, BFC D&I Steering Committee, CEO, Roksanda and BFC Non-Executive Director, who discussed the research as part of a panel session with Moira. “Brands have begun to understand the importance and clear business case for diverse thought and representation across all levels of their organisations.”
However, despite this renewed understanding, our research has found that urgent action is needed. While the industry is home to some creative and innovative policies designed to drive up inclusion, D&I is not being prioritised consistently. As I explained in my keynote address, only half (51%) of fashion businesses have coordinated D&I strategies, few have specific targets for representation of minority groups, and even fewer have budgets allocated for D&I.
“The last few years have provided a critical moment of self-reflection for the fashion industry. Brands have begun to understand the importance and clear business case for diverse thought and representation across all levels of their organisations.” – Jamie Gill Chair, BFC D&I Steering Committee, CEO, Roksanda and BFC Non-Executive Director.
Moreover, the industry’s leadership remains dominated by men and white leaders. At Board, executive committee and direct report level, the proportion of women sits at below 40%, despite women making up the majority of customers. At the same levels, leaders from an ethnic minority background make up 9%, 7% and 5% of the leadership population, respectively. Particularly discouraging is the lack of ethnic diversity at direct report level, speaking to the small pool of ethnic minority leaders who can step up into the most senior roles in the future.
Our research beyond gender and ethnicity paints a mixed picture. While there is a huge amount of work to be done to promote disability inclusion – only 7% of businesses can identify at least one leader in the top two leadership levels with a disability – we found the fashion industry to be an inclusive place for the LGBTQ+ community, with 62% of businesses identifying a senior leader who is LGBTQ+.
Most broadly, we detected the need for a cultural refresh within fashion. Many businesses are still hiring for ‘culture fit’, and placing undue emphasis when recruiting on previous experience from specific ‘aspirational’ brands.
“When businesses hire for culture fit, it tends to lead to hiring in your own image” reflected Moira in her panel session with Jamie. “This is magnified in the fashion industry, and has led to a talent pool which is small, narrow in its scope and features similar types of people who reflect traditional industry convention. Instead, I believe companies would benefit by hiring for a value fit, broadening the talent pool and creating diversity of thought”
“When businesses hire for culture fit, it tends to lead to hiring in your own image” – Moira Benigson, Founder & Chair, The MBS Group
Indeed, this is compounded by the fact that many roles in fashion have historically been underpinned by unpaid internships, or low-salary entry-level positions in expensive capital cities, in effect closing the door on young people who do not have sufficient financial support behind them.
However, there are shoots of real progress. The industry is home to some creative and comprehensive strategies, and best-in-class initiatives which are driving positive change in the industry. In forward-thinking companies, leaders are rolling out policies to drive up social mobility, implementing ambitious targets, and leveraging employee networks to learn more about their workforce and empower colleagues.
A critical part of our report is a series of case studies, highlighting best practice from companies including Burberry, GANNI, PVH Europe, Lululemon and Tilting the Lens.
Geoffrey O. Williams, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, shared insight from Burberry’s global strategy, for example, telling us that “We believe creating positive change only happens when everyone is involved, and understanding local nuance is critical to success.” We also heard from Sinéad Burke at Tilting the Lens, who provided guidance for businesses looking to step-change progress on disability inclusion: “Best practice is to set a clear agenda and attach goals and objectives accordingly while measuring the progress along the way.”
In order to feel its many benefits, businesses must treat D&I as an urgent corporate priority. Just like digital transformation, D&I is central to business modernisation. And just like digital transformation, companies that don’t commit to it today – with a strategy, budget, and targets – will be left behind.
“Just like digital transformation, D&I is central to business modernisation. And just like digital transformation, companies that don’t commit to it today – with a strategy, budget, and targets – will be left behind.”
From my conversations, it’s clear that fashion businesses with the most impactful D&I strategies have made it an absolute pillar of their corporate identity, where D&I is owned by the CEO or Chair, not siloed as an ‘HR’ issue, and can be authentically felt across every department from marketing to design to supply chain. They have hired dedicated D&I leaders with authority and gravitas who report into the CEO, and equipped them with a suitable budget to drive change.
The fashion industry has a critical role to play in shaping our culture, and in shaping our society. With an evolving industry identity, and a large proportion of women in the customer and employee base, fashion is well placed to make progress on D&I and to quickly see its benefits.
Today is the time to take action. We commit to making this report an annual event in order to measure progress, and to continue to encourage knowledge sharing between fashion companies. One of the most common topics of conversation was that companies simply don’t know ‘what good looks like’ and thus open transparency of strategies is critical to increase the pace of change. In the autumn, we will host a series of webinars for the industry to revisit our research findings and share best practice more widely.
To conclude, I’d like to round off with four recommendations from the MBS Group on how to prioritise inclusion in your business:
● What gets measured, gets done: The furthest-ahead businesses are prioritising data collection to better understand diversity in their organisation and measure progress
● Put your money where your mouth is: Where specific budgets have been allocated, companies are more advanced on D&I
● Share best practice: We believe there is a responsibility for companies that are more developed with their D&I strategies to share initiatives for others to learn from
● Lead from the top: While employee networks and grassroots activity are a critical part of the journey, D&I is owned by the Board, CEO and executive committee in gold-star businesses. It is a leadership, not a human resources issue
I hope that you find the report, which you can read in full here, of interest, and that it can be used as a tool to drive lasting positive change in our industry.