The Finance of Corporate Caring

Strap in, I’m giving you a case study. But first, the notables….

Beauty: 

(Note: I want you to meditate on how close this is to being true, and then scream into a pillow with me. LOL)

But mostly, I’d like to chat about four specific, interconnected pieces. I’ll go in order of the chronological events:

  1. Sephora lays off employees via sudden conference call - Business Insider April 1, 2020

  2. NYT Op-Ed From Former Part Time Sephora Employee April 18, 2020

  3. A New Report Finds Beauty Brands Are Still Catering Social Media Posts To Lighter Skin Tones - NYLON [Sidenote: For some reason, NYLON’s current web design doesn’t show publishing dates? I don’t like it.]

  4. Fewer Guards, More Black Brands: Sephora's Plan to Win Back Shoppers - Bloomberg - Bloomberg Jan 13, 2021


About a month into the COVID epidemic in the United States, Sephora let go 3,000 part-time and seasonal employees over a conference call with little to no advanced warning, after allegedly promising some of them funding to support their educational costs at cosmetology or aesthetician school. One person confirmed they had 18 minutes notice before the call that informed them that their services were no longer needed.

One of the most under-reported beauty events of 2020 was the mass Sephora layoffs, and I’m not sure why that is. In a Clubhouse chat with my friend Darian of BEAUTYIRL, we discussed some of the biggest beauty headlines of 2020, and no one knew about the layoffs despite all of us working professionally in media and the beauty landscape. Somehow, even among beauty professionals whose whole lane is beauty news - for some reason, news of a mass layoff from one of the biggest beauty retailers in the world somehow . . . slipped through the cracks? I mean, I get that a lot happened that year. But we hear a lot about celebrity product rollouts and guru drama. What about regular people?

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A viral NYT Op-Ed isn’t total anonymity, nor are the pieces from several outlets republishing viral tweets from disgruntled former employees who were on the call. But none of them led to material changes in the situation. I keep thinking about these layoffs in the larger conversation about corporate anti-racism efforts and social justice in the beauty landscape.

The responses to the layoffs by Sephora customers vary. You had a community of folks who were outraged and pledge to boycott via social media, you have folks that voiced their disappointment and disgust. . . who then went on to continue to purchase items from Sephora within the year (no judgment, it is what it is a - I could write about the history of boycotts until the cows come home), and you have folks who have reasoned that they only let go of part-time workers who “barely worked there,” and that the layoffs were not the fault of Sephora/LVMH group, but the global pandemic.

Listen, all of those things can be true and it can still be a fucked up situation that Sephora did not have to make to remain financially solvent. Their online sales increased in several categories, even though instore sales were moot. Their senior executives and the LVMH Corporate Board? They didn’t get pay cuts or furloughs in an effort to mitigate the employee bleed, and according to a former employee, her severance package was a weeks pay.  They could have retrained employees to do other temporary positions in the company - virtual consultation services, perhaps, but they didn’t. They could have shifted those employees into focusing on doing delivery, as they did then partner with Instacart for increased delivery options during COVID, but the partnership’s overhead and built in infrastructure probably seemed more enticing and offered them less corporate liability. Instead, delivery fulfillment was sloughed onto a company that is controversial for being terrible to their employees, in their own special way. I’m not surprised by the situation, I’m just pointing out there were other options that were possible. This could have ended differently.

Their slogan right now is “Let’s Beauty Together.” But what about the front line workers who showed up every day? Retail employees are the way so many consumers interact with the beauty industry: they know first-hand what people are buying, what they aren’t, what people most care about, how much money people are spending, they have conversations with people about their routines, their questions, their anxieties. They are, in so many ways, the face of the beauty industry, the way so many people begin their careers within the industry. And they were the first to be forced to leave it when the industry seized.

This happened around the time LVMH was getting good press throughout the industry from refiguring factories from perfumery into hand sanitizers because the ingredients have commonalities. Launchmetrics reported that the media impact of their good deeds was profitable, up by millions compared to the same time the previous year. At least half of that increase was due to media placements regarding their COVID machinations. And the reality is there are several Sephora stores whose primary employees are comprised of primarily part-time employees who are working there as a second or even third job to earn enough to cross a chasm between poverty and a living wage. Because, as it has been thoroughly reported, the minimum wage in America does not cover living expenses in any state. Technically Sephora pays a minimum of $11.75 an hour for any position - and that’s lower than the minimum wage in several states. As minimum wage hasn’t increased nationwide in decades, the valuation of what that affords has decreased while billionaires are wealthier than they were pre-pandemic. Capitalism is wage theft, and this is true in every industry.

Just because a job is a partial one doesn’t mean it isn’t the difference between having enough money to pay rent and possibly being evicted. And a severance check for a job with no benefits does not mean you will be able to subsist on unemployment benefits. As anyone who has applied for them knows, that journey is a roulette wheel of misfortune and bureaucracy.

I find it strange when people who are not billionaires defend the calculus of corporations that could give a fuck about them. It’s not like you’re getting a discount out of it. What are you getting out of it, besides a thin barrier between your participation in consumption and the suffering of another person - a person who could have in so many dimensions and circumstances, be you?

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Writing this is certainly not going to endear me to Sephora’s communications team, but I’m not going to be followed around a store, and that is far more traumatizing. And I’ve written positive pieces on Sephora and products stocked there in the past - like this one about their programming for queer and trans folks when it launched. I am being critical because I care about the people who care about beauty, and a lot of those people care about Sephora. I do not care about Sephora as if it were a person, because despite the Supreme Court ruling that says corporations have personhood, I know they are not people. I care about the people who do care about Sephora, people who are actually breathing.

When we, as reporters, cover conversations about racial equity and beauty businesses - we are focusing on the stories of getting brands in stores, people in more senior roles, and social media visibility . . we’re cementing specific optics on a conversation by leaving some questions unasked and unanswered. We’re still letting brands off easy - because it tends to make our jobs easier to do. I get that writing in media is a total shitshow of vulnerability and diminishing wages. That’s exactly my point: we don’t owe allegiance to corporations, but to the people they supposedly serve. People like us, and our friends, and our families. People who are far more likely to be - at least in my extended social circle - part time workers, underemployed workers, or unemployed entirely.

There’s so much less focus on the expendability of the part-time retail employees overall, and I think that’s something we ought to examine more, moving forward. The lives of part-time workers, who are shown to more likely be black and more educated than their white counterparts, they are somehow more reasonably expendable in corporate calculus and in the general population’s sympathies. Why is that, really?

We know why. We’ve always known why. That’s different than accountability, or consequences. But for the record:

This is a pre-covid data set. However, more recent data confirms it and also shows that it’s disproportionately been women of color who have lost their jobs in the pandemic. Here’s a chart pulled from a Quartz story on the subject pulled during the pandemic. A bummer as an aside - I wish more Labor Statistics cared about Asians.

I wanted to talk about the latest Bloomberg piece because I do think it’s got very good quotes from Sephora about how they are approaching anti-racist practices as not really an ethical good, but as financially productive position to make. They literally did say as much, right there on the page:

“We’re seeing that there’s a tremendous commercial opportunity for us as a retailer to address the needs of all of our clients,” said Deborah Yeh, Sephora’s chief marketing officer for the Americas, noting that the company wants to create an environment where all shoppers and employees feel welcome. “All retailers, Sephora included, have a financial incentive to get this right.” (Source)

Some other things that I thought about reading the piece:

  • You can’t expect consumers to want to return to shopping with you if your management is instructing employees to racially profile customers. You can have all the sales you want, you can entice them with black owned beauty brands - that doesn’t guarantee their return or their loyalty. They can learn about the brand through a shop window or through your website and then go buy from that brand directly. What are actual ways Sephora can deeply interrogate the very common stories of anti-blackness at all levels? And if it involves training and feedback from employees - how are black employees going to be protected through the process of coping with everyone else’s fragility? How will they not be punished for speaking out, and honestly - what would give them assurance that they’d even be believed?

  • When and if people will be re-hired, is racial equity going to be an active part of that rehiring process? Because if we have historical data that shows non-black people (primarily white folks) are more likely to be re-hired or hired to begin with for part-time positions, that really should be part of the conversation. Obviously one could argue people will be hired back on the basis of their individual qualifications, but you know, individual perspectives are still shaped by institutional prejudice - given what we know about racism and labor practices, I’m not holding my breath.

    After all, one of the basic problems of American psyche right now is that individualism and the idea of “bootstrapping” has turned into selfishness and a lode star of toxicity. One that has led to a conspiracy theory which has led to a coup which has led to hundreds of thousands dead and a president twice impeached.

    Just saying.