The efforts are an outgrowth of Unilever CEO Alan Jope’s call for his brands to adopt purpose programs. While much of that work in the U.S. of late has touched on racial justice, the company also has stepped up buying from minority-owned businesses and media companies, and improving the diversity of its advertising globally.
But it’s not always an easy path; the company’s U.S. efforts ended up casting a harsh social-media spotlight on its former Fair & Lovely skincare brand in Asia, whose restage to Glow & Lovely has met criticism too.
Dove’s bumpy journey
Even Dove, which has the most prominent racial justice programs of any Unilever brand, has had to overcome issues of its own. The brand’s long-running Real Beauty campaign has always encouraged women and girls to be proud of their own natural beauty. But the company faced a strong backlash over a Facebook ad in October 2017 which was widely seen as racist. The ad was quickly yanked and Unilever apologized, though the Black model featured in the ad pushed back against the notion that it was racist or that she was a victim.
A month later, Esi Eggleston Bracey, a Black woman and veteran of Procter & Gamble Co. and Coty, became executive VP and chief operating officer of personal care at Unilever North America. A month after that, Unilever acquired Sundial Brands, marketer of SheaMoisture, one of the leading U.S. Black-owned beauty brands.
By early last year, Fabian Garcia took over as president of Unilever North America, meaning the top two Unilever execs in North America are people of color. And the company’s U.S. diversity numbers turned out to be considerably better than many competitors when social-media pressure led it to release them in June. While the company revealed that only 8% of U.S. corporate employees identify as Black, 30% identify as people of color. And among managers, those numbers are higher, with 17% identifying as Black and 42% as people of color.
Taking on hair discrimination
Bracey declined to comment on what happened at Unilever before she got there, but programs like those of Dove, SheaMoisture, Caress and Vaseline all have begun since she arrived.
“For a long time, Dove’s life work has been to be a champion for beauty inclusivity,” Bracey says. “Dove talks about this as making beauty accessible for each and every person. As we zeroed in on the Black community, what we saw very strongly was hair inequality. We felt compelled to do something about it.”
High-profile discrimination incidents kept popping up nationwide, such as an 11-year-old Louisiana girl sent home from school over her hair extensions and a New Jersey high school wrestler forced to cut his dreadlocks to compete, both in 2018.
Dove already had started to address the issue of “hair shaming” and discrimination in 2016 with a campaign. And in light of those incidents, when Bracey spoke to a National Organization of Black Law Enforcement officers gathering in early 2019, she said she thought the brand could make an impact on hair discrimination. Soon afterward Dove joined with groups that include Color of Change, the National Urban League and the Western Center on Law and Poverty to form the Crown Coalition (for Creating a Respectful Open Workplace for Natural hair) soon afterward.
By July 2019, California, led by Sen. Holly Mitchell, passed the first Crown Act against hair discrimination. Now six more states—New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Washington and Maryland—plus municipalities including Cincinnati, New Orleans and Montgomery County, Maryland, have followed. And while a Crown Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last year didn’t advance in the Senate, the group plans to try again in the new Congress.
Unilever last year pledged $5 million over five years to back Crown Coalition efforts, which have expanded to include broader racial justice issues.
Beyond the legislation, which essentially extends Fair Employment and Housing Act protections to hair styles, the campaign also helps raise awareness about discrimination against people who wear natural hair styles and gives people confidence to express themselves.
“That’s why we do this work,” Bracey says. “It comes to me in unusual ways, from people not even knowing I’m associated [with the Crown Coalition], saying things like ‘I’m going to go and get my locks today, because I know I have the law on my side.’”
Fighting racism against men
Meanwhile Dove Men+Care, which previously focused mainly on advocating for paternity leave policies, has changed tack toward battling racist perceptions of Black men. And while it doesn’t have legislation to back, this effort also aims for measurable change.
Dove Men+Care joined with the National Basketball Players Association last year to fund a survey of 3,000 people to quantify racist perceptions and attitudes; then launched a series of videos from Joy Collective to begin combatting those perceptions. The plan, says Bracey, is to follow up with future research to measure whether things improve.
This content was originally published here.