Bojan Srbinovski //
Things are happening at Glossier, the cosmetics giant famous for its millennial pink brand palette and its repeatedly stated goal to “democratize beauty.” A recent open letter published by a group called Outta the Gloss, a collective of former Glossier retail employees, indicates that these workers, whom Glossier calls “offline editors,” were subjected to unsafe working conditions, which not only run antithetical to the company’s professed values but appear to be in clear violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) occupation limits and worker safety guidelines. There are several reasons why this should matter to those of us who work in the medical humanities, and all of them lie at the intersection of health and labor.
Why should this incident of potential worker exploitation at a cosmetics and lifestyle brand matter to the readers of a health humanities journal? Why is it a problem for the humanities more generally? One reason is that Synapsis has been writing about fashion for some time; particularly important is Brian Troth’s recent piece, “The Fashion of Disease.” Another reason has to do with coalition-building; the medical humanities have been concerned with healthcare workers, who, as the introduction to Synapsis’s special issue on COVID-19 put it, have “been put in a condition of danger because of the politics of austerity and the ‘do more with less’ ethos of neoliberal management philosophy.” It is not a bridge too far to think the precarity of frontline workers alongside that of other kinds of laborers. In fact, it may prove to be essential to any reform project that arises out of the current crisis in which we find ourselves.
In September of 2010, Vogue fashion assistant and one-time The Hills guest star Emily Weiss launched Into the Gloss, a blog that featured interviews with professionals in the fashion and cosmetics industries. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Weiss worked on the blog from 4:00 am to 8:00 am before going to her day job at Vogue. Eventually, Weiss would expand the blog’s corporate partnerships strategy and begin appending to it an e-commerce platform. Before long, in 2014, Weiss would launch Glossier, a “direct-to-consumer brand” focused on “skin care as makeup.” The company’s health-focused and inclusive branding appears to have turned it from a millennial fad to a force in the crowded world of skincare cosmetics. By 2019, Glossier had become, in the words of Vanity Fair, a “billion-dollar juggernaut,” having closed out its Series D round at $100 million and been valued at $1.2 billion. A true sign that Glossier had succeeded in its meteoric rise–the company’s digital marketing strategy is now the gold standard for startups across the board.
Glossier appears to have built its brand on a seemingly inclusive and politically minded vision. Letters from Weiss titled “Our Commitment to Sustainability” and “Black Lives Matter” appear across the blog, signaling a commitment to the values shared by what Glossier must see as its politicized consumer base. A particularly nice touch is the launch of the Glossier Hand Cream, which the company framed as a medical necessity in the era of COVID-19. Glossier then committed to “donating the first 10,000 units of Hand Cream to healthcare workers in the U.S., Glossier’s home base.” Time and again, Glossier’s purported goal to “democratize beauty” appears to live at the core of all its successes.
Yet Glossier’s success appears to have been built on worker exploitation. The violations of Glossier, pending investigation and if prosecuted, may result in serious consequences. The former employees who shared this letter anonymously—because of the nondisclosure agreements that they were made to sign when they were hired, one assumes—allege explicitly racist and transphobic behaviors by customers and human resources alike. The most grueling part of the letter, however, points to possibly illegal labor- and safety-related wrongdoings that bear repeating in full:
Things weren’t so pleasurable behind the scenes for us: the penthouse “showroom” was outfitted with non-functioning air conditioning during a NYC summer; we violated occupation limits of the penthouse with our sales team alone; we worked through and alongside construction of the Flagship space (one inspector: “the dumb girls in the pink don’t even know what kind of fumes they are inhaling”). Despite editors’ feedback, recycling to scale with daily operations still hasn’t come to fruition. Our first premises were rat-infested. In fact, despite at one point sharing a building with our headquarters and corporate team — sometimes using literal space, like desks, for lunch — we couldn’t have had a more disjointed work experience. We would seek reprieve from lunch on a damp room’s floor riddled with rat waste because we retail employees lacked a break room of our own, and some corporate employees didn’t hide their disgust.
After describing these violations, along with other anti-worker, anti-Black, and anti-trans behaviors by the company’s corporate management, the writers of the letter explain, quite persuasively, that, while there is much to be commended about the “revolutionary” foundations of Glossier’s vision, their experiences have shown them that “a company founded by a woman does not insulate it from racism; does not excuse its anti-Blackness and work culture that renders its broadest tier of employees disposable.” This criticism, if taken seriously, would render an image of Glossier’s branding as not only a network of serious misinformation, but also as a form of moral bankruptcy.
Any reform project in response to companies like Glossier might also include workers in the academy, to which scholars of the medical humanities also belong. Graduate workers, adjuncts, and other academic employees might see, in what appears to be a blatant form of labor exploitation that threatens the health and safety of workers, some striking kinds of resonance between what is happening at Glossier’s Flagship store and what is happening at many American universities. To be sure, graduate workers are most likely not getting asthma because of unsafe work conditions, but many of them, at such different places as UNC Chapel Hill, Georgetown, and University of Illinois, are expressing serious concerns about what work during the upcoming semester is going to look like, and what kinds of risks to their health they are expected to take on.
If we are anyone in the image of what is happening at Glossier, we are the retail workers, asking for fair treatment and a safe work environment, and not the lordly managerial team, whose “thought leadership” seems to have a limited basis in material reality.
And in the new world of COVID-19, the battle for worker safety must be part of the medical humanities’ core project.