“Across industries, a diverse workforce improves decision-making up to 87 percent of the time — the result of expanded perspectives,” cites the UK fashion industry’s first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) report, published in January 2024 by the British Fashion Council, The Outsiders Perspective (TOP) and the (Fashion) Minority Report, with the support of knowledge partner McKinsey & Company.

Despite that fact, progress remains slow on improving DEI in the fashion industry. While “outward-looking” representation has evolved to showcase better representation in marketing campaigns and on catwalks, the “inward-looking” context in the workforce and boardrooms has not yet gained the same momentum for change.

For example, the report found that only 9 percent of executive roles within fashion and 11 percent of C-suite roles are held by people of colour and just 39 percent of executive teams and 24 percent of C-suite roles are occupied by women. Meanwhile, as fashion looks to the Middle East, India, Africa and Southeast Asia for growth opportunities, there remains little representation of these demographics in decision-making roles at brand headquarters.

However, DEI remains a core value of the industry’s workforce — and employees are holding businesses more accountable to upholding long-term change. The report shows that 39 percent of global job hunters have turned down job opportunities due to a perceived lack of inclusion. Similarly, employees are seven times more likely to advocate for their workplace if it fosters a feeling of belonging.

In a panel discussion at One Hundred Shoreditch in London, held on 25 April 2024, The Business of Fashion and The Outsiders Perspective invited HR, talent and strategy professionals in fashion, beauty and retail to explore key topic areas laid out in the UK Fashion DEI Report. The panellists discussed tangible learnings and best practice in improving DEI efforts in businesses today, and to inspire momentum towards long-lasting change. The Outsiders Perspective is a non-profit initiative and incubator for people of colour working outside of fashion, to better equip them to join the operational side of a fashion business. The former CEO of Roksanda, Jamie Gill, founded the initiative in 2022 and has since collaborated with the likes of Burberry, Zalando and the British Fashion Council to mentor prospective candidates with the knowledge and tools needed to transition their career into Fashion.

Moderated by BoF’s Sophie Soar, the panel saw Jamie Gill, founder and CEO of The Outsiders Perspective (TOP), joined by Rebecca Levy-Lewis, senior director of people, culture and impact at Depop, and Leila Fataar, founder, CEO and CSO of Platform13, an independent full-service partner delivering cultural relevance for big brands such as Adidas, Birkenstock and Dr. Martens.

Here, BoF shares key insights from the talk.

Invest in DEI and integrate it into business strategy

JG: Businesses that are prioritising DEI as integral to business strategy are winning. Those businesses are growing — they have a stronger understanding of their customer. They’re growing in new markets as well. [...]

We also found that those businesses that are not prioritising this are having a tough time. They’ve sidelined the conversation: it’s seen as a social impact; it’s seen as the thing that we’ll [implement] when we have time, when we have money, when we have the resources. And then ultimately, they’re sidelining their people.

But there’s a ROI in investing in this. You can see your return on investment from your retention of staff because you created a great place for them to work. So you’re not constantly re-recruiting people, paying recruitment fees, and then taking a year for them to understand the businesses and get them going, only for them to leave after the third year.

LF: There are certain parts of a business that should be your horizontal. The biggest issue at the moment is that [DEI] is being treated as a vertical — it’s the department as opposed to the strategy. If it’s in your strategy, upstream, it flows through every part of the business.

Every brand at the moment wants to be culturally relevant. But they don’t get it — it’s not about putting a person of colour in your ad. It’s not about focusing on the output — it’s about the input, which is having a diverse team. The output then feels credible and meaningful. In a world where brands are really struggling to find meaning and attention, they can do that just by being empathetic and human. It’s a business imperative. DEI almost shouldn’t be called DEI — it should be a part of your business strategy.

RLL: Budgets aren’t getting bigger and resources aren’t endless. Has that made it more difficult? Yes. Has that changed our commitment at Depop? No. I think, if anything, it has really strengthened our commitment because we see value in the opportunity.

We know that having a creative, diverse, inclusive workforce who genuinely understands the needs of 35 million users in hundreds of countries is going to propel our business forward. But we’ve had to really think about how we go from just talking about DEI as this thing we believe in, to making it a business unit and talking about it like we talk about business.

Executives need to buy into DEI strategies and lead by example

JG: The idea of leading from the top is getting leadership to understand. So asking them to question, “Do you understand this? Does this make sense?” And if you don’t, let’s get granular about it. Diverse teams are 39 percent more likely to outperform their competitors. That statistic is from over 1,266 listed companies across 23 countries in six geographies across all sectors.

If they [the leadership team] are on board — what’s their plan? Do you actually have the right people in place now to deliver that plan? And what’s the timescale on those priorities? We’re just asking leaders to be curious, to learn and be honest with us. And fundamentally, to be allies to the conversation.

When we ask leaders to lead from the top, we’re not asking them to leave their positions so we can replace them with new talent from diverse communities. There’s a fear around acting on DEI because of the fear of getting it wrong or being scared that [leaving their role] is what leaders are supposed to do. But it’s about progressing the movement with leadership through allyship. We’re asking leaders to be advocates and brand ambassadors.

Three years ago, we were having this conversation about sustainability. And now it’s mandatory. So that policy is around the corner [for DEI], that pressure, that mandatory obligation.

RLL: At Depop, we believe in consistently embedding impact and circularity in terms of how we define success — which is hugely important to our leadership. Our executive team is 60 percent female and 60 percent represent ethnic minorities in the UK. That’s an important signal to our 400 employees. But also, an important signal to our community as well.

On a more tangible level, leadership’s role at Depop today in terms of hiring is about meeting public representation targets — even if we’re not hiring that much, which no one is at the moment. But that means that we’ve changed how we hire. It means that we look to build better pipelines. That means we look at the process internally and think about implementing things like the Mansfield rule [a certification process which aims to ensure that all employees have equal opportunity to advance into leadership].

Leadership has an obligation to think about creative solutions on our behalf, because the goals and the targets aren’t changing.

LF: In order to be able to speak higher up to the C-suite, it’s about leading by example. I [did] quite a lot of projects, which were diverse by default, because I am. I led the global re-release of Stan Smith for Adidas, which was a huge change in how they work for them. I didn’t do it with their rostered agencies or even fully with the team that I inherited — I brought new people in — both internally and through my network externally — and because that was successful, there was a case study to use going forwards.

So the fact that there was a [queue] for the first time outside of Adidas, that information went through the business all the way to the C-suite, which was huge. And then they were forced to examine: how did you do that?

I would advise looking out for the smaller projects which seem to be a bit below the radar, smash them out and give that company a case study for their business. Then they’ll want more like that. If they want more like that, they need to start thinking like you — that was my way of doing it.

Make DEI data-gathering and analysis more impactful

JG: No one wants to fill in a DEI survey — going forward, that will never work. But what we’ve seen actually does work is, asking questions like, “What do you really think about our brand values? What do you think about what we’re doing? What do you think about where the market’s at right now?” If you’re succinct with the demographic data points that are included within the survey, that’s a really good way of doing it, which also gets a higher conversion rate.

Once you have gathered the data — analyse it. What is that data showing us? Is it showing us where we should be recruiting from versus where we shouldn’t be recruiting from? And it will give us insight there and an opportunity to be transparent with the rest of the business and communicate what we have found because that way, you can then gain trust with your organisation.

RLL: Depop is a technology company, so we have to talk about DEI like we would talk about the product experience or one of our marketing campaigns. And that’s been really important.

The biggest issue at the moment is that [DEI] is being treated as a vertical — it’s the department as opposed to the strategy. If it’s in your strategy, upstream, it flows through every part of the business.

The infrastructure for DEI, as it stands, means that we [as an industry] don’t know who’s accountable for DEI. And the fact of the matter is: it isn’t the chief diversity officer, it’s not the CEO — it’s all of us. So how do we consistently embed DEI into how we work and how we define success, to truly enable the business to think about it? That’s really been our focus for the past couple of years.

Having come into [my] people and culture role recently, especially with a communications background, what I found interesting was how much data we gatekeep from our leaders in the business as well. How are we supposed to make meaningful progress on our goals if we don’t give our leaders all the information. So say to your leaders, “Here’s some data, it’s not pretty, but here’s what we think it’s telling us and here’s how we think we can reverse this outcome in six months.” We have to socialise that data, which we do from a business perspective all the time.

Incentivise employees to contribute towards DEI output

RLL: I’m happy to say that we’re part of the 17 percent [of businesses] that publish our DEI goals, but those are long-term, five-year goals. But what’s important is that those goals become annual measures.

At an employee-level, what we’ve done is, prioritising diverse talent and also using that as a metric to assess our population. So keeping track and rating a person because they contributed to their ERG and that being evaluated in the same vein as that person who led that marketing campaign. So it’s not just how the company is measuring progress, it’s how we’re assessing individuals under DEI as well. That has to be a part of performance evaluation.

LF: Implementing DEI should be connected to bonuses, because that’s how decisions are made. That’s a good business incentive. There’s nothing better than an employee saying, “I love it here.” That’s going to go so far within your business. Because it’s not necessarily diversity that’s the problem – it’s the inclusivity when you get there. And that’s a big problem.

Future-proof your business with the incoming workforce in mind

LF: What I think a lot of people don’t realise is that with so much movement in the world, things are just going to get more and more mixed. Almost 50 percent of Gen Alpha and Gen Z identify as non-white in the US. That’s their workforce coming through. But it’s also your consumer. So make the changes, or you’re not going to be relevant.

RLL: Having Gen-Z as one of our primary consumers, we have employed a lot of listening strategies and data gathering externally. We do surveys, focus groups, we do committees. But we also apply that internally when it comes to DEI and how we create a workforce.

JG: In London, 57 percent of Gen-Z are diverse or from an ethnic community. The conversation isn’t going anywhere. Three years ago, we were having this conversation about sustainability. And now it’s mandatory. So that policy is around the corner for DEI, that pressure, that mandatory obligation. So we can act now, authentically, or we can wait for it to be policy, at which point, acting on it will be inauthentic. All we’re talking about is our people and increasing financial profitability. It is by default for the greater good.


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