Reformation, Corporate Racism & the Sustainability Movement

The world of sustainable fashion and systemic racism powerfully collided this week, when Reformation, with its finger firmly on American society’s pulse, posted its support for the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram. So far, so good, but then the shocking truth soon came out: despite Reformation’s claims of being supportive of equal and fair treatment of all people, they were actually found to be discriminatory towards their own Black employees.

This one’s a doozie. It’s usually not surprising when employees of huge corporations accuse their bosses of racism. Shocking, yes, but not surprising. We live in a pretty racist world, and the chances of encountering a bigoted person is higher in large corporations, or even in smaller ones that are concerned with profits at all cost. 

But Reformation?! This bit of news is surprising, shocking, and deeply upsetting. Reformation is one of the sustainability community’s favorite sustainable fashion brands. And sustainable fashion is supposed to fight not just for the environment, but against exploitation, discrimination and injustice. 

reformation corporate racism

And to have the founder of this company – someone who ostensibly had thought deeply about the drawbacks of the fashion world, two of which are racism and bigotry – behave in this manner is hypocritical and just plain unacceptable. The founder, in her public apology, alludes to “ignorance” to explain her behavior. But that cleverly downplays the seriousness of what she did. She wasn’t being ignorant while being rude to her Black staff or discriminating against them; it was deliberate mean-spirited bigotry, plain and simple. 

 

Reformation’s Racist Corporate Culture

If you have not yet heard of the news, you can catch up with Reformation’s racism and racist corporate culture or read the original Instagram post by ex-employee Leslieann Elle Santiago here.

This is pretty common – racism built into corporate culture. At least sexism in corporate culture is sorta being directly addressed nowadays (however insincerely and insufficiently), but systemic racism is something that we as a collective have not yet gathered the courage to directly address. 

reformation corporate racism

But, wait. Who should address it? The people at the receiving end? Or the people at the top of the system? If you look at the protests, it sure looks like people at the receiving end are addressing it urgently. So where are all the people at the top of the corporate structure? When it is all so common, and addressing it would go a long way in improving all our lives?

It’s easy for people to ask: If this is so common in the workplace, why don’t you raise a fuss? Why isn’t anyone complaining?

Well, firstly, Reformation’s former employee Leslieann Elle Santiago, for instance, did complain during her exit interview. To no less than the company’s president. Evidently nothing was done.

And, secondly, I don’t think most people realize how difficult it is to complain about day-to-day systemic racism. It is insidious, unrelenting, and ultimately very draining for the person at the receiving end. 

reformation corporate racism

Power Structures in the Corporate World

There’s always an intrinsic power gradient in any human group, and it usually falls to the most powerful member in the group to set the standard as to how others are treated. Because that person is the one that everyone else wants to keep happy. 

I work in the corporate office of a hugely successful company, and I have personally witnessed many of the indignities that some employees are put through by the more powerful employees. And the accepted thing is for everyone to comply with the demands of the boss – because we need to keep him happy, because we need to stay in his good books, because we are tired and need to maintain the peace, because we just want to finish our work and get the fuck out. And because, at the end of the day, we know we have little to no recourse. I mean, what am I going to do when I see the boss disrespect someone every day or treat me with contempt for my race or gender? Go to HR? But the head of HR is the boss’ golf buddy and her salary is paid by the company, so who is she going to listen to? Me or her powerful golf buddy? 

And, to make it worse, who is she going to hold a grudge against? Me, the little minion who complained about the boss, or the boss himself? And then, when I inevitably get no action from her, do I ‘escalate’ this to the next level? Or do I tuck my tail between my legs, shut up, and continue working, having killed a part of my soul for, essentially, job security.

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I mean, who really needs this kinda shit? Most of us just want to lay low, finish our work, and head home. We don’t want to get into confrontations about sexism, racism and just plain meanness. We don’t want to jeopardize our careers, or sacrifice our decency at the altar of corporate politics. We usually do not want to rock the boat in any way whatsoever.

But, then, sooner or later, there will come a time when all of these “minor” indignities grow bigger, when “Come on, I was just kidding!” is no longer an acceptable response to bigotry, and when you begin to tire of expecting disrespect in your daily life. You then reach a personal limit where you are overwhelmed and angry, and you can no longer stay quiet. 

Which is why Leslieann Elle Santiago spoke up.

Which is why Refinery 29’s employees spoke up against racial discrimination in the company

Which is why Ban.do’s employees spoke up.

And which is why so many others are speaking up, along with the protesters, about the entire experience of racism, from casual and “harmless” to violent and systemic.

This is why this has reached such a watershed moment, when a whole lot of people just couldn’t take it quietly anymore.

And here’s the thing: despite all protestations to the contrary by the accused, racism isn’t due to “ignorance.” Not in the developed world, not in corporate America, and certainly not in the year 2020. So when they say they will “do better”, I do wonder if they actually will. But this is a different issue for another time. Plus, I don’t have any solution for curing racist mindsets.

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So Should We Now Boycott Reformation?

When you’re working in sustainable fashion, you usually use some specifically chosen words, such as: Mindful, Thoughtful, Conscious, Responsible

It’s ridiculous when you claim to be all these things, but still indulge in racism and bigotry – on a personal level and as part of company behavior. It’s so frustrating to have a cause as important as sustainability be tainted by association with something as terrible as racism. 

Why, Reformation, why? 

At a time when we need to spread awareness about climate change and about switching to a more sustainable way of living, when Reformation was doing such a good job in such an important industry, why did this incident have to sully the gains achieved? Should we now continue to support Reformation simply because we believe in its stated goals? Or is it better to sacrifice the message of sustainability in favor of a message of anti-racism? should we boycott them like Nordstrom is considering?

I thought this would be a complicated answer, but it’s pretty clear in my head. Simply put, Reformation has lost my respect and trust. I personally refuse to support a company that not only displays such abhorrent behavior at the top level, but also adds hypocrisy into the mix. We don’t need such flag-bearers in the sustainability movement, and frankly, there are plenty of other companies we can support that are genuinely trying to solve the fashion x environment problem without wasting any energy on arrogant and bigoted displays of racism. 

Unless Reformation is seen to be making genuine change (and not just paying lip service), there’s no reason to continue to buy from them. I hope they will clean up their act and welcome all employees equally. But until then, no Reformation recommendations on this site. (Also, I work in corporate communications, and seeing phrases such as “We’re taking this incredibly seriously” makes me question their sincerity.) 

We will return to the regular topics on this blog soon, but for now, seeing all that’s happening on our streets and all that we still need to fight for to build a better world, this needed to be said. Let’s be kind to each other, and let’s be kind to the environment. We’re all in this beautiful world together, after all. Stay safe, stay strong, and continue to support each other and eco-friendly businesses that treat everyone with respect.

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reformation corporate racism and sustainability

What do you think?