Chelsie Henshaw follows in the footsteps of Munroe Bergdorf, exposing brands for their hypocritical activism

Written by Chelsie Henshaw

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death, we have witnessed many brands posting to Instagram with supportive messages about the Black Lives Matter movement. However, are these posts purely performative? Are these brands just jumping on the latest ‘trend’ to gain attention? Several of the brands who have shown their support for the movement have been criticised for having a controversial past when it comes to black lives. Some brands have also come under fire for trying to ‘cash in’ on the movement.

An example of this seemingly troubling support from brands is that of L’Oréal’s relationship with Munroe Bergdorf which has recently gained a lot of traction in the media. This stems from Bergdorf publicly outing and shaming L’Oréal for ‘gaslighting’ her. On 1st June L’Oréal shared a post to Instagram which featured a black square with the words ‘speaking out is worth it’ in bold white. They captioned this post by stating that ‘L’Oréal Paris stands in solidarity with the Black community and against injustice of any kind’, which Bergdorf was quick to negate. Bergdorf responded to L’Oréal’s post with a post of her own detailing the hypocrisy of L’Oréal’s words. The conflict is the result of L’Oréal dropping Bergdorf from their True Match diversity campaign in 2017, following her remarks on Charlottesville which see her discussing white privilege and ignorance. L’Oréal’s post was inundated with comments as many rushed in to point out the hypocrisy of their statement. Jade Thirlwall, who has previously spoken out about her experiences with racism, commented ‘I guess speaking up is only “worth it” when it suits you?’ Many were shocked by L’Oréal’s insensitive post and they received a large amount of backlash due to it.

It is imperative that we hold brands accountable for their mistakes

However, L’Oréal and Bergdorf are now moving forward, as the attention that Bergdorf’s response garnered prompted L’Oréal to reach out to resolve the issues. Bergdorf has since released a statement about the conversation she had with the brand’s new president, Delphine Viguier. Whilst Bergdorf acknowledged how ‘traumatic’ L’Oréal’s past actions were for her, she announced that she will be ‘sitting on a board to provide a voice and a champion for black, trans and queer voices.’ Bergdorf stated that she believes in ‘accountability and progress, not cancellation and grudges.’ This is the type of attitude which will help make positive and permanent change. It is imperative that we hold brands accountable for their mistakes. However, we must allow them room to learn from these mistakes and create positive change in the future. By choosing to move on from the situation, Bergdorf is able to educate the brand and incite positive change through her new role on the diversity board.

L’Oréal is not the only brand to be called out in the media due to their response to the death of Floyd, and the support for the Black Lives Matter movement that it has inspired. In The Style has been accused of cashing in on the murder of Floyd after they released a charity t-shirt with the slogan ‘I hear you, I see you, I stand with you.’ In The Style’s charity t-shirt seems to perfectly encapsulate the issue of brands using the movement purely as a means of profit. Whilst the proceeds of the t-shirts are given to charity, the advertisement of the garment will most likely attract more shoppers to buy other items from the brand, thus resulting in more profit for the business. It seems that In The Style is choosing to capitalise on the tragic death of Floyd.

All [In The Style’s] t-shirt is seemingly doing is adding to environmental pollution and boosting consumer interaction when the brand could instead donate directly to charity

As many have argued, there are various other ways that In The Style could have supported the movement without creating a t-shirt. One Instagram user stated that ‘a bigger way to make a statement than a fast-fashion tee with a stolen design would be to hire black models, work with black influencers and pay them fairly and listen to your black audience.’ This comment brings into question the use of fast fashion alongside performative activism. All this t-shirt is seemingly doing is adding to environmental pollution and boosting consumer interaction when the brand could instead donate directly to charity.

Other brands accused of being performative include: Amazon, Pretty Little Thing and Celine. Amazon arguably has a chequered past and has been recently accused of making empty statements about racial equality. Jacinta Gonzalez of Mijente argued that ‘it is opportunistic of Amazon to use this moment to make empty and hypocritical statements when it is simultaneously building the backbone for many police departments across the country.’ Can Amazon declare solidarity with black people whilst simultaneously feeding into the same system which endangers black lives? It seems many do not agree with Amazon’s attempts at solidarity, calling for bigger action from the company.

Furthermore, Pretty Little Thing attempted to show their support for the movement but faced a large amount of criticism. The brand tweeted an illustration of a white hand holding a black hand to promote diversity and equality. However, they quickly came under fire for this image as the skin tones used are far from realistic. Many responded saying that the image was ‘inappropriate’ due to its ‘jet black hand colour.’ One user responded to the company with ‘erm you do know black people aren’t actually the shade of black? And our nails are not naturally black as well.’ Pretty Little Thing’s blunder serves to convey the ignorance and insensitivity that many brands have fallen prey to in their attempts to support the movement.

It is clear that it is now in a brand’s favour to support the Black Lives Matter movement due to the increase in support on social media

The current surge of activism from many brands in the media suggests that brands are only speaking out now because it is financially in their favour to do so. Why else has their activism only just started now, when it is ‘popular’ to support the movement? For example, many have questioned where L’Oréal’s championing of inclusivity was when they chose to drop Bergdorf because she spoke out about racism and white supremacy. It is clear that it is now in a brand’s favour to support the Black Lives Matter movement due to the increase in support on social media. However, I want to see real change from these brands, and more than surface level support. We need to hold brands more accountable for their actions. If they are being performative in their activism, we need to question this. If they do something questionable, call them out; Bergdorf called out L’Oréal and this has resulted in positive steps forward. These brands have large platforms and they should utilise these to expose the truth of systemic racism, inciting the change we need.


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