Editor’s Note: This article is part of a package on diversity. You can find the rest of the stories here.
The tension between outward messaging and internal criticism of corporate culture has been a defining characteristic of athletics retailers in recent years. Multiple athletics retailers were criticized in 2018 either for their treatment of women or people of color in the workplace, and for how that treatment is at odds with how they portray their brands in advertising. In many cases, those complaints haven’t gone away.
Nike faced criticism in 2019 for its treatment of female athletes during pregnancy, in addition to a class-action lawsuit alleging sex discrimination that was originally filed in 2018.
Adidas faced internal pushback over concerns about the treatment of Black employees at the company, which came to a head after Adidas’ initial response to protests against systemic racism was viewed as insufficient.
The retailer eventually released a list of actions it planned to take, including investments in the Black community and hiring goals, and since then, in September, Adidas released an update on its progress. Among its early actions, Adidas says it has strengthened its anti-discrimination and non-retaliation policy, completed listening sessions involving over 700 employees, recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday in the U.S. and is in the process of updating its hiring and career development processes.
Nike also released a list of company actions, including investing in Black communities and recognizing Juneteenth, after initially releasing an ad campaign focused on acknowledging and putting a stop to racism. The retailer named a new diversity chief in July, and a Nike spokeswoman noted that the appointment is a structural shift to bring talent, diversity and culture together under one department head.
The move, “represents an intentional and important systemic change for Nike, Inc,” the spokeswoman said in an email to Retail Dive. “We are confident the changes we are making will continue to drive progress in this space. Our goal is to have representation at all levels of the organization with accountability that will extend throughout our enterprise.”
Indeed, as consumers and employees watched retailers react to the protests, complaints rose over companies’ willingness to market anti-racism or equality, but not act on it.
“If you don’t really understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, more importantly, then when times get tough, of course those are going to be the first initiatives that go out the window, even if you believe in it,” Ella Washington, CEO of diversity and inclusion strategy firm Ellavate Solutions, and a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, said of companies that jumped on the D&I “bandwagon” after the protests.
While Nike and Adidas did both ultimately release a list of actions they planned to take, Washington said that steps taken in June don’t tell the true story of a retailer’s commitment to diversity — long-term plans do.
“Companies have to be as committed to their values as they are their bottom line,” Washington said, “and that is where we often see a mismatch between what people say and what they do.”
This has come up for athletics retail in other ways in the past. Even as many top players professed themselves to be champions for female athletes last year, the representation of women on their executive teams told a different story. And women-focused brands continue to proliferate, seeking to fill what they see as a gap in the market.
Ann Kletz, CEO and co-founder of Goal Five, helms one of those brands. Her company sells girls and women’s soccer gear, an area where fit has often been determined based on men’s products, Kletz said.
“They’re rolling their shorts, they’re rolling their sleeves, they’re pinching the side of their shirts with their headbands, and it’s just telling you immediately: this clothing, this gear does not fit,” Kletz said of girls playing soccer.
Kletz and her co-founders set out to change that, focusing specifically on bottoms, which is the “biggest pain point” for female athletes. In Goal Five’s second year of business, Dick’s Sporting Goods reached out about a partnership, hoping to bring more options to its female soccer customers.
“Lululemon built their company around a $100 tight. We’re building our company around a $50 short,” Kletz said.
While catering to female customers is still a top priority for many retailers, as evidenced by efforts like Nike launching its first maternity line, Lululemon extending sizing (if only marginally), and Dick’s Sporting Goods and Under Armour teaming up to release a basketball shoe developed specifically for women, the protests this year have aligned consumers’ focus on racial diversity.
It’s an important shift not only because consumers and employees alike are demanding it, but because less progress has been made in terms of racial diversity among executives.
“They’ve talked the talk about how important diversity is from a gender and ethnicity perspective for years now. And we’ve certainly seen the needle move,” Catherine Lepard, managing partner of the global retail practice at Heidrick & Struggles, said. “I think we’ve seen the needle move more on the gender perspective than on ethnicity. I can’t pinpoint for you why, but certainly that has been the case.”
Diverse marketing is the start, not the end
The protests against systemic racism over the summer pushed retailers of all types — including many in athletics — to denounce racism publicly and speak out on social issues in ways they hadn’t before. Just this month, market leaders in the running space introduced a Running Industry Diversity Coalition to improve equity in the space.
Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which has a diversity and inclusion initiative of its own, said the number of retailers speaking out should not be “glossed over.” In many cases, he noted that organizations pivoted from their official statements against racism to holding town halls or other meetings with employee resource groups for Black employees or employees of color, and are looking for more ways to drive change.
“The commitment to action is deep, it’s sincere and hopefully in time it will be meaningful in its collective result,” Dodge said.
To many, though, including Lauren Bitar, head of insights at RetailNext, the company responses felt “contrived” as brands rushed to release statements. It also in some cases raised questions about how committed companies were to treating their employees well in all respects, versus only when the spotlight was on them.
“Certain big apparel brands had laid off or furloughed a ton of their organization but then gave millions towards Black Lives Matter,” Bitar said. “And Black lives totally matter — that’s a super important movement — but it felt really wrong with all those people that were furloughed or not making any money. They had the cash somewhere. It felt like they were violating a different kind of corporate responsibility.”
Dodge said that while marketing campaigns and company statements denouncing racism may not ultimately be the most meaningful steps to combat systemic racism, silence on important issues is no longer an option for retailers.
“Silence is a decision,” Dodge said. “When you don’t speak, people will make assumptions about what you think. And if that is a reality, then you need to be prepared to speak and know when it’s appropriate to do so.”
The immediacy of reactions from companies, despite not being comprehensive, may show an awareness of that. However, observers note there is a stark difference between marketing diversity and working towards meaningful change.
“There’s this assumption for many organizations that because they have connected diversity and inclusion efforts to their strategic business imperative, or they’ve been very innovative, for example, in their marketing around DE&I, that they have reached a level of maturity in this space that they really haven’t,” Washington said, adding that diversity and inclusion needs to touch every part of a company’s “sphere of influence” before that can be achieved. “Until organizations take it upon them as a responsibility to think through their entire sphere of influence around diversity, equity and inclusion, they won’t get to that place of true integration that they pretend to be at with those spiffy ads or well-crafted statements.”
One key area within a company’s sphere of influence is its employee base. While athletics retailers differ in what information they provide on racial diversity, six of nine athletics companies Retail Dive reached out to provided answers to at least some questions on employee diversity statistics. In general, more data was available about the representation of women than how many employees of color or executives of color companies have. Two companies gave employee diversity statistics on women, but did not provide any on people of color.
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