By now, anyone with a smart phone has seen the black square posted on social media feeds or received an email from a company CEO issuing a statement on racial inequality.
Just as brands and companies drive the economy, they also will bear much of the responsibility for using their platforms to drive awareness and make sure diverse voices are heard.
NutraIngredients-USA reached out to several dietary supplement brands and their publicists to see how they are addressing racial inequality.
While many communication managers were eager to help out, others simply stated they didn’t have anything to offer: “At the moment I don’t believe this story is a fit for any of the brands I work with” said one publicist. Another apologized, “I'm so sorry. My clients don't have anything to contribute for this topic. It's an important story though. I really wish I had something to offer.”
Not everyone will have something to offer at the moment, as a lot of companies, employees and clients are still digesting the last two weeks. However, as time goes by, it’s becoming clear to many that inaction isn’t a viable option.
Suzanne Shelton, who has been representing nutrition brands for 30 years, told us that addressing racial inequality is uncharted territory for her and her clients.
“They all have significant sustainability and environmental programs, all are focused on employee well-being, some have quite diverse staff, one does a lot to help refugees, etc. but this specific aspect of social justice is a new issue for many of us. None of my clients are given to empty words or dramatic gestures calculated for effect. No sweeping pronouncements. One client is quietly donating products to herbalists working in impacted communities. Another commented that a one time gesture isn't good enough and they are thinking through what would be authentic and relevant. Still another is having a moment of prayer company-wide.”
She added that her public relations and marketing company, The Shelton Group, donated to several organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and My Block My Hood My City.
Beyond the black square: messages from brands vow to tackle racial inequality head-on
One brand Shelton represents, Balchem, sent a message internally to all staff, which read in part, “We stand in solidarity with the Black community, we believe Black lives matter, we stand against all forms of racism and injustice, we stand for inclusion. However, we must do more.”
Balchem CEO Ted Harris went on to say the company plans to expand beyond their current anti‐harassment training requirements to include programs focused on diversity and inclusion as well as unconscious bias in the workplace. He went on to offer mental health resources and challenged his team to be part of the drive toward change.
Herbalife’s CEO and chairman, John Agwunobi, posted on Instagram, “We must stand up and speak out against racism, not just now, but always. Remaining silent is not an option.”
Agwunobi added that he had honest conversations with employees and distributors about racial inequality. He said the company is also conducting an internal review on the state of racial equality at Herbalife Nutrition so they can “do better.”
Asma Ishaq, CEO of Modere, admitted that she recently had “uncomfortable but imperative conversations” with her teams. She said the most common questions were related to not knowing what to say, or fear of judgment. “We need everyone to participate and take action, not to allow shame or apprehension to prevent them from stepping up. Let’s draw the line in the sand here and focus on working together to eradicate the undeniable racism that still persists. We invite all companies, communities and individuals – especially those who may have neglected to act in the past – to join us in this cause, now more than ever.”
Ishaq added that Modere is donating to several causes. In addition the company is evaluating their employment practices and compensation structure to assure they are free of statistical racial or gender bias. They also plan to establish an Inclusion & Equity Council, create a formal mentorship program for women and minorities, as well as support minority-owned businesses as key stakeholders.
Harborside, a CBD and cannabis retailer in California, said, “When we remain silent in the face of inequalities, we contribute to the systemic racism that we see playing out on our streets. We must stand together against racism in all its forms.” The company said it continues to contribute to community partners that advance social equality efforts and are also exploring additional opportunities to give back to the community.
“It starts with us,” said co-founder and CEO of SmartyPants Vitamins, Courtney Nichols Gould. “Our immediate step is training for everyone inside the company focused on diversity and inclusion at all levels of the organization, as well as providing resources so that everyone can learn, listen and act more effectively as a community that cares about each other. It also means staying true to who we are so we continue to focus on health and how we can help to ensure that everyone has access to the things that make good health possible.”
Individual reactions: The industry needs to step up
Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., CFS, a senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and food scientist & principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a food science and research firm, said the industry is part of the problem.
“We have two pandemics happening concurrently: coronavirus and racism. Dietary supplement companies were jumping in on the coronavirus with claims of ‘we have vitamin D’, ‘we have vitamin C’ or ‘we can build your immunity.’ The silence on the racism front is deafening. The lack of statements from organizations that work with dietary supplements and health foods or natural foods is loud and deafening. It may be because they do not have as many people of color, even though many of the foods and many of their ingredients have has been appropriated from other cultures."
Shelke, a native of India, said that for starters, the industry needs to diversify. “You have Supply Side and you have Expo West and Expo East, and you see these enterprises and you rarely see a person of color, a person with the scientific background in those areas. What you do see is a very disproportionate representation of the marketers. But when you look at who is doing the science behind it, you will see a number of names that are Japanese, Latin American, Asian, Indians, Pakistanis. So you take any product — coconut, turmeric, ginger, most of the science is developed by those people, yet you don't see them being represented or even positioned for recognition. What is recognized is very whitewashed marketing towards a very white community.”
Dr. Shavon Jackson-Michel, director of medical and scientific affairs for DolCas Biotech, said that she has always felt very comfortable, appreciated, and accepted at DolCas. "Our office looks like the United Nations in a sense, which is pretty amazing—but we have never communicated this on a platform or created an agenda around this."
“As a Black woman in America, I know that this is an important issue. In fact, I personally believe our industry suffers from a tremendous lack of diversity when it comes to Black and Latinx representation,” Jackson-Michel observed. “I have not ventured down the rabbit hole to understand why that is yet; but the fact remains that there is very little presence of people who look like me in visible roles in our industry and at major trade shows around the globe, where there are often tens of thousands of people (in seen and lesser-seen roles) I still find that I am often the ONLY black female, and maybe one of a maybe handful of people of African-descent.”
Jackson-Michel, who started working in the supplement industry as a student nutraceutical rep almost 14 years ago, added that when any group lacks sufficient representation “we suffer as a collective.”
“I believe there's a solution, but only if the cast of characters understand the problem,” explained Shelke. “The health and nutrition arena comes across as very caring, empathetic, somewhat hippie-like, ‘love in the air’ kind of a community. But are we embracing diversity as it truly exists? Are they giving credit where it's due? Are they opening doors for those whose backs we have made this industry? That's what we need to see and that's where the movement should be.”