The era of beauty with a cause

Like so many other industries, beauty brands are dipping their toes into activism, but companies need to show honesty and accountability if they are truly passionate about change

You only need to look at the example of red lipstick to understand beauty has long been political. In the early-20th century, it was associated with prostitutes, until it was defiantly reclaimed by the Suffragettes, before becoming a patriotic symbol of hope during the Second World War. But politics in beauty now extends beyond the coded messages in cosmetics: brands themselves are expected to have a voice and to use it loudly.

“Today’s beauty consumer understands the power of their pound and views every pound in their pocket as a vote,” says Cult Beauty founder Alexia Inge. “For a consumer, a vote is not just for the product they buy, but a vote for the brand themselves.”

Forays into brand activism from cosmetic brands range from the brilliant to the bungled, from the powerful to the performative. Fence-sitting isn’t an option: issues about diversity, sustainability and fair treatment of employees are human rights issues, and consumers see silence as complicity.

“I think it’s your responsibility to respect people’s values. Social justice is a human right. Politics is people,” says beauty journalist and diversity activist Dr Ateh Jewel.

Beauty’s history with brand activism

Some established beauty brands are no strangers to brand activism. LUSH has run campaigns against everything from fracking to police surveillance and The Body Shop were front-runners in the fight against animal testing. But, on the whole, the extent of brand activism for conglomerates has largely been via charitable donations, not political statements.

The difference is that in today’s climate, many new, and often direct-to-consumer, cosmetic brands have made hyper-visibility and radical transparency an integral part of their ethos. Attempting to cherry-pick and make political statements only when it’s beneficial for the brand won’t work.

As beauty director Anita Bhagwandas says: “People expect to be spoken to more personally and directly, and they want a high level of service; having a political stance comes with that.”

Today’s consumer understands the power of their pound and views every pound in their pocket as a vote

This crystallised perfectly in June, when two pressing issues came to the fore: Black Lives Matter and how the brands were treating their own employees during the pandemic. Brands that attempted to show solidarity with the BLM movement with a single Instagram post were held to account in the comments, as fury over years of performative brand activism spilled over.

US-based mobile beauty app Glamsquad was one of many that posted an Instagram statement about their commitment to anti-racism, only to experience public backlash as their comment section became full of voices angry at the vagueness of the language and lack of commitment to change. Not to mention former employees sharing stories about alleged racism they experienced while working there.

Brands not practicing what they preach

As countless identikit political statements rolled out, UOMA Beauty founder Sharon Chuter started the Pull Up For Change movement, along with the hashtag #PullUpOrShutUp, challenging brands to share what percentage of their staff were non-white. The figures that emerged were bleak: 8 per cent of L’Oréal’s executive US team identify as Black, while just 5 per cent of those at director level or above at Revlon are Black and 3 per cent of Estée Lauder’s executive directors are Black.

Brands that have attempted to find armchair brand activist options, like simply casting non-white models, were caught short. “Just casting a Black model can be exploitative. It needs to be a 360-degree approach to power; don’t just use my blackness to make you more beauty pounds. Incorporate Black people in your company at every level,” says Jewel, who is currently crowdfunding her own inclusive beauty line to help encourage people of colour to “love their melanin and their skin”.

Bhagwandas echoes the statement: “Such ethos needs to run through the entire brand. It can’t just be a one-off donation to Black Lives Matter. Are you going to set up a scheme to get more people of colour employed at your brand? Are you going to make sure your non-white employees feel safe and supported? Are you going to make sure this touches every aspect of your brand?”

Brands can no longer hide bad behaviour

Beauty industry online watchdog account Estée Laundry, which has some 180,000 followers, are also keeping a close eye on how cosmetic brands are caring for their employees as the pandemic rages on: who has been furloughing, who is protecting jobs and who is pushing to re-open stores? Estée Laundry’s posts are largely anonymous submissions and the account often shares what would usually be private communications between employers and employees; memos, emails and conversations between managers and staff.

One post that shared what appears to be a contract allowing L’Oréal USA to access their employees’ medical records to apply an exemption from returning to the office garnered hundreds of angry comments. These kinds of social media accounts serve to tear down the barriers that existed between brands and their consumers, and put brand activism under a close-up lens.

Bhagwandas explains: “There’s a lot more accountability now than there used to be. There used to be more of a smoke screen that doesn’t exist in the same way as it did before.”

How to bounce back from bad brand activism

Sometimes the only hope after public backlash is total reinvention. When Kendo purchased Kat Von D Beauty from the eponymous founder, they rebranded it as KVD Vegan Beauty and said the initials stood for “kindness, vegan, beauty, discovery and doing good” in an attempt to distance themselves from Von D, who faced a string of anti-semitism allegations, among other controversies. The brand always had strong vegan credentials, and former fans who stopped shopping with them following the backlash around Von D have largely re-embraced them.

However, for brands whose issues go wider than a celebrity founder, the price of public approval is a commitment to change. “In life, we all mess up, but it’s how you bounce back from it, and if you do so with integrity and authenticity, I will give you a second chance. I don’t believe in ‘cancel culture’. I’m interested in doing better and growing,” says Jewel.

If a brand has messed up in the past, they need to own that and explain it

Honesty and accountability are key, as Bhagwandas confirms: “If a brand has messed up in the past, they need to own that and explain it, and just be really straightforward with people. This isn’t just with politics, but with charity, too. If a brand is doing a charitable partnership, they should feel comfortable sharing how much they’re actually raising and donating.”

Transparency and corporate communications might not seem the most natural of bedfellows, but modern beauty consumers have a different kind of relationship with the brands they buy. As Cult Beauty’s Inge notes: “It’s a two-way conversation now. The industry has an excess of choice and competition.”

There’s no more hiding the cracks. If consumers don’t like what they see, they can simply shop elsewhere. Pull up or shut up, indeed.