Victoria's Secret Falls Short on Gender Equality Despite Rebranding Move

Victoria's Secret parent company L Brands scored 17 out of 100 on a 2021 Gender Benchmark index published Tuesday, despite the underwear retailer's high-profile abandonment of its "Angels" catwalk show and its new slate of diverse models.

The research from the World Benchmarking Alliance evaluated how 35 of the world's largest apparel companies addressed the U.N.'s fifth Sustainable Development Goal: increasing gender equality and empowering women.

L Brands ranked 27 out of the 35, with a score of 17, some 12 points below the industry average.

With scores of 53.9/100, Gap, which also owns Banana Republic, Athleta and Old Navy, and VF Corporation — known for The North Face, Vans shoes and Timberland — topped the list. Adidas was next with a 50.1 score, and Levi Strauss & Co and Target rounded out the top five at 47.3.

Victoria's Secret Protest
Men and women, some of them models, hold a demonstration outside of lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret on February 14, 2020 in New York City. The Valentine's Day protest outside of the flagship store was in response to recent allegations against the company by women claiming a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment persists at the global brand. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Though L Brands scored relatively well in terms of workplace compensation and benefits and gender representation in the supply chain, it lagged behind peers in all measurement areas.

L Brands, and Victoria's Secret in particular, was rocked by revelations of its links to pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

He managed L Brands founder Les Wexner's fortune and a series of women have alleged he posed as a Victoria's Secret scout in an attempt to abuse them.

Wexner stepped down in May 2020 but L Brands is now being sued by activist shareholders over accusations which include a claim that the company founder and his wife knew Epstein was using the guesthouse in their New Albany, Ohio estate to abuse underage girls.

The lawsuit claimed Wexner's tied to Epstein caused reputational damage to the company.

The research published Tuesday does not focus on Epstein, but on current practices at the company.

It says that while L Brands states it is against workplace discrimination and harassment — and even has a violence and harassment policy — it does not require suppliers to put in place similar policies to cover their workers and does not actively police the issue, according to the report.

This reflects a trend within the apparel industry, the World Benchmarking Alliance says.

"Apparel isn't walking the talk when it comes to gender equality," said Pauliina Murphy, the group's director of engagement. "We see a marked difference between what companies say and do on vital issues such as pay, gender balance in leadership and violence and harassment."

Megan Rapinoe
Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Cup champion soccer player Megan Rapinoe delivers remarks during and event to mark Equal Pay Day with U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and first lady Dr. Jill Biden in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on March 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The report comes shortly after Victoria's Secret announced it was undertaking a complete rebranding, swapping out its iconic runway "Angels" for its new VS Collective, which includes U.S. women's soccer captain Megan Rapinoe, Chinese world champion skier Eileen Gu, Swiss-American plus-size model Paloma Elsesser and Indian actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

The rebranding was announced alongside the launch of a new charity group called The VS Global Fund for Women's Cancers. Through the partnership, Victoria's Secret says it will donate at least $5 million annually to address racial and gender inequities and fund cancer research.

L Brands also announced new leadership for Victoria's Secret. Of the seven new board directors, six are women.

Martin Waters, who took over as the CEO of Victoria's Secret in February, called the rebranding an effort to turn the lingerie company into "the world's leading advocate for women."

The rebranding of Victoria's Secret takes place amid a trend of apparel companies pivoting to appeal to younger consumers who increasingly value company ethics.

According to a study by Porter Novelli/Cone, 90 percent of Gen Z consumers believe that companies should take action to help the world solve its social and environmental issues — while 75 percent said they research a company's stances before buying from them.

Gen Z's biggest concerns surrounding the fashion industry are sustainability and labor exploitation, according to JUV Consulting, a "Gen-Z founded, Gen-Z led consultancy."

Yet the rebranding of Victoria's Secret has led some to question whether its new gender-conscious stance is a sign of genuine change in values within the company, which has long been known for its scantily-clad supermodels — or if it's just geared toward marketing.

Priyanka Chopra
Priyanka Chopra is part of new VS Collective, which includes U.S. women's soccer captain Megan Rapinoe, Chinese world champion skier Eileen Gu, Swiss-American plus-size model Paloma Elsesser. Getty Images/Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

It has also raised questions about its broader ethical commitments. Sustainability has long been an issue in the fast fashion industry, and Victoria's Secret has been no exception.

The company received backlash last year when hundreds of bras were found discarded outside a recently closed store in Colorado.

Though the brand hasn't been accused of sustainability issues of the same magnitude since, L Brands scored 0.5 out of 100 on the 2020 Sustainable Cotton Ranking and has received a "C" grade on the CDP Climate Change program since 2016.

At the same time, Victoria's Secret has made some progress when it comes to sustainability.

According to its website, the company "upcycled" millions of plastic bottles and donated enough money to plant 100,000 trees. It also says it is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Tammy Roberts Myers, a spokesperson for L Brands, told Zenger News the company had also established an internal task force that meets nearly weekly to "create an intentional journey for the brand" focused on tangibly improving its efforts on issues of sustainability.

However, Tracy Meserve, the librarian at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., said she is typically skeptical of "sustainability initiatives" announced by major apparel brands.

While some have substance, she said most tend to be just marketing tactics. The difference is generally revealed by whether a brand has precise goals, specific metrics and defined timelines to achieve them, so that customers can keep them accountable, according to Meserve.

"Unless you're seeing that kind of detail with very specific goals and very specific metrics, I think it's just honestly greenwashing," Meserve said.

Another issue Victoria's Secret has faced criticism about recently is labor exploitation.

A 2020 study from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute revealed a number of global brands, including Victoria's Secret, had directly or indirectly benefited from forced labor by Uyghur Muslims from China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region since 2017.

Uyghur
Protestors attend a rally for the Uyghur community at Parliament House on March 15, 2021 in Canberra, Australia. Sam Mooy/Getty Images

The L Brands spokesperson told Zenger News it had never operated in the region.

The company has challenged the accuracy of the 2020 study and sent a response to the United Nations denying any business relationship with the region.

Nevertheless, 20 percent of the world's cotton comes from the Xinjiang region of China, making supply chain cleanliness hard to assess. According to The Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, virtually the entire apparel and footwear industry is tainted by the forced labor.

Jewher Ilham and Penelope Kyritsis from the Worker Rights Consortium said that the only way for companies to be certain they are not complicit is if they have proactively made a set of commitments to completely remove their supply chains from the region.

End Uyghur Forced Labor has also created a Call to Action for companies to do exactly this, and though seven brands have signed the call, L Brands has not yet signed.

Ilham also noted that when the Chinese government retaliated against several American companies for having public statements against Uyghur forced labor on their websites this spring, many removed the statements in response — including Victoria's Secret.

Les Wexner
Les Wexner and Ed Razek pose backstage at the 2016 Fragrance Foundation Awards presented by Hearst Magazines. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Fragrance Foundation/Getty Images

"We do view taking down a statement, when you have already put up a statement, as a sign that you might be prioritizing your commercial interests in China over the lives and human rights of Uyghurs," Kyritsis said.

The Victoria's Secret rebranding is just the latest example of a company pivoting its brand toward social change. But questions remain about whether changes in marketing will lead to adjustments in supply chain practices.

Kyritsis said that companies like Victoria's Secret — and the governments regulating them — needed to take a more systematic approach to demanding improved labor conditions.

"This is very much a result of supply chain dynamics that prioritize producing things quickly, producing things at the lowest cost possible," she said. "It's certainly not inevitable that workers get exploited and abused at the base of supply chains."

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.