Almost 18 months have passed since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 forced wellness brands around the world to confront issues of racial diversity, inclusion and access within an industry long called out for its lack of broad representation.
At the time it triggered shows of solidarity and statements of positive intent from brands ranging from Nike and Peloton to Impossible Foods and The Nue Co. It also sparked a wave of wellness startups run by Black people, for Black people to emerge, determined to level the playing field for the unrepresented.
Now, as we approach the end of 2021, we’re asking the founders of those startups what, if anything, has changed to dismantle systemic racism within the wellness industry and what more needs to be done.
“Diversity and inclusion is much more front of mind”
“The short of it is not much has changed,” WellSpoken Founder Sarah Greenidge tells Welltodo.
“Covid has been a real shock to the wellness industry. We’re only starting to see studios open and events starting up again. The movement we were looking to see hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet – but that’s not to say it won’t.”
Greenidge launched a charter for the wellness industry to tackle health inequality, lack of access and under-representation faced by Black and minority groups in the days after the BLM protests.
Now WellSpoken, an accreditation scheme for the sector, is drawing up a list of the 100 most credible wellness brands to further spotlight the companies driving meaningful change – and highlight the ones that aren’t.
“The WellSpoken Mark is launching the top 100 credible wellness brands in the UK in January 2022,” explains Greenidge. “The team have analysed a variety of credibility metrics for 100 of the biggest wellness brands in the world, including marketing strategies, content accuracy, health literacy scores and levels of diversity and inclusion.”
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Greenidge says diversity and inclusion is much more “front of mind” for the wellness industry. “What has shifted is everyone acknowledges diversity and inclusion is an important part of the industry. It can’t just be an aside. It has to be a core part of your conversation with consumers. That’s a really big shift.”
Nevertheless, Greenidge believes the majority of progress has come due to consumer pressure, rather than being driven internally by brands. “It’s not been pushed from an ethical standpoint, more from consumer pressure. That’s still promising, but it’s going to take a while until we see the wellness industry as being intrinsically inclusive,” she adds. “We’re still a way off from that.”
“It feels like a bit of a trend”
The industry’s apparent slow pace of change has forced some to take matters into their own hands. This summer, Jerome and Tanya Ferguson launched Obtain, an “inclusive on-demand fitness platform” dedicated to making a healthy lifestyle more accessible for people of colour.
“Obtain is on a mission to make fitness more inclusive and accessible for all,” the Co-founders tell Welltodo. “We’ve proactively sourced the best trainers from diverse backgrounds, actively avoiding the common fitness instructor aesthetics and current elite representations we are flooded with in today’s media.
“Obtain is about relating to the everyday person who doesn’t have the type of access a middle-class white person does and not setting unrealistic goals in your wellness journey. Do what you can, when you can, to Obtain the best version of yourself – that’s our motto.”
To reclaim fitness from the “elite and privileged”, Obtain’s co-founders insist their monthly price point is lower than an average class or monthly budget gym membership at £12.99 or one-time annual payment of £124.
And while they acknowledge some fitness brands are trying to address long-standing inequalities, with the launch of D&I programmes and influencer partnerships, the co-founders fear much of this is disingenuous.
“It feels like a bit of a trend, like blackfishing, rather than genuinely investing in permanent change out of concern for people’s wellbeing,” says Jerome and Tanya.
“Access to fitness for anyone in marginalised communities is small and we need to change that,” they add. “It is our mission to be loud and proud of people’s differences and abilities, to give them a model that allows for greater accessibility and representation.”
“Support from brands hasn’t been forthcoming”
The founders of NoireFitFest, the UK’s first Black wellness and fitness festival that launched in the aftermath of the BLM protests, have also become increasingly disillusioned by the wellness industry’s lack of diversity – both when it comes to race and age.
“Support from brands hasn’t been as forthcoming as I would like it to be,” says PT and nutritionist Lorraine Russell, who launched NoireFitFest with yoga teacher Donna Noble in September 2020.
“The wellness industry is still very ageist,” Russell continues. “It still promotes a singular body type, and there is a lack of Black representation, especially of Black women. I fit into all three of these descriptions and I have yet to see someone who looks like me being used in any major wellness brand campaign.”
Russell believes major brands have consistently failed to prioritise these marginalised demographics – missing out on them as customers as a result – and that they will only start to correct this by making their organisations more diverse from top to bottom.
“The more diverse your organisation, the more you’re able to reach new audiences,” she says.
No more excuses
Despite the apparent lack of progress over the past 18 months, WellSpoken’s Greenidge is quick to stress that most companies are still in survival mode from the pandemic. The real test will come, she says, when the pressure of Covid is off and there are no more excuses.
“These are still commercial businesses, they’re not charities,” Greenidge continues. “But we’ll have a better idea at the end of 2022 or the start of 2023. It’s going to take that long before we start seeing tangible results.”
Greenidge also points to entrenched wage and poverty gaps, especially in the UK, that she says disproportionately affect people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. “It comes down to accessibility,” she says.
“A few fitness studios have made greater accessibility a core part of their service but for the wider industry, it goes far beyond just making your Instagram look more diverse. Brands need to review their recruitment, their senior management. That takes time. The change doesn’t need to be fast, it needs to be meaningful.”
For now, however, Greenidge believes the continued success of black-owned brands like Obtain, OYA Retreats, Ayana, Bind London and NoireFitFest is the best indication of how much the wellness industry has learned from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The wellness industry needs more players that represent the broad range of people that contribute to the sector,” she says.
“Our hope is that brands like these aren’t just relegated to niche offerings, but are given the backing and push from investors and consumers alike to become a core part of the wellness community.”