Beauty Must Become More Accessible to Be Inclusive: Key FIT Capstone Takeaways

There is no inclusivity without accessibility.

Such was the message of the 2024 Fashion Institute of Technology’s Masters in Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management program capstone, delivered Wednesday evening at the school’s Haft Theater.

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The thesis, presented by the 25-strong graduate class, detailed an uncompromising vision for inclusive beauty that considers the needs of marginalized consumers — including consumers who are disabled, people of color, of low socioeconomic status or otherwise face barriers in access — during each step of the brand-building process and product lifecycle.

Here, four key takeaways from the evening, followed by the full list of 2024 FIT CFMM graduates.

1. Social responsibility and financial opportunity go hand-in-hand.

“Ignoring consumers with disabilities is not a passive oversight anymore,” said one graduate, citing research by Return on Disability indicating that the community has more than $13 trillion in annual spending power, though a lack of accessible options means many of them “have to work harder and spend more to find products that work for them.”

Seventy-eight percent of the population is impacted by disability — either as a caretaker, financial provider, or the one experiencing it themselves — and because data indicates a positive correlation between accessibility and performance, lack of accessibility translates to a missed market opportunity.

2. Each step of the product journey can — and should be optimized for accessibility.

A. Packaging

A survey conducted by the 2024 CFMM graduate class found that 77 percent of people with disabilities see inaccessible packaging as a top barrier to purchasing beauty products. Visually impaired consumers, neurodiverse consumers and consumers with limited mobility each require different considerations.

  • Visually impaired consumers need clear ways to distinguish between different products on shelves beyond just Braille, which varies by language and only 10 percent of the visually impaired population can read.

  • Consumers with arthritis or motor disabilities benefit from packaging with easy-open caps and other design tweaks, for instance the matte finish of Rare Beauty’s liquid blush which allows for an easy grip, and the same product’s intentionally low-resistance cap design.

  • Neurodivergent consumers want to avoid “being overstimulated, which can happen from rough and bothersome textures, and bright colors.”

B. Omnichannel shopping

In-store environments were ranked a top barrier to entry by disabled consumers, second to product and packaging. Sephora Europe’s new color-coded shopping baskets (which are black for those seeking assistance and red for those who aren’t) are one example of creating more seamless in-store experiences.

There are online barriers, too, which can be improved with “clear product descriptions, customizable user experiences like third-party widgets which can adjust font size, contrast, colors and more, and AI-powered voice assistants” — all of which can empower disabled consumers to shop independently.

C. Marketing strategies

Inclusive shopping experiences are hindered by both a lack of representation and generalizations about people with disabilities.

The graduates found that only 1 percent of marketing assets depict disabled people, and those instances are often limited to wheelchair users or amputees, “neglecting the broader spectrum of visible and invisible disabilities.” Brands like E.l.f. Beauty, which counts Paralympic swimmer Anastasia Pagonis as an ambassador, and Gucci, which tapped Ellie Goldstein, a model with Down syndrome, are among those making strides in meaningful representation.

3. The beauty/wellness intersection is incomplete without increased commitment to understanding women’s health.

Proprietary research by the 2024 CFMM graduate class found 72 percent of women feel it is “extremely important” for beauty brands to support women’s health and wellness initiatives. Simultaneously, seven out of 10 women feel “underserved, misrepresented and neglected” by beauty despite comprising the industry’s biggest target demographic.

The growing convergence between beauty and wellness — including topical solutions, supplements and home and functional fragrances — is a $141 billion opportunity, per Nielsen, and a link that 95 percent of women want brands to address, per the graduates’ survey.

Increased funding for research, product innovation, and brand acquisitions — like L Catterton’s recent acquisition of Naomi Watts’ menopausal beauty brand, Stripes — are key to meeting the needs of women consumers through all of their hormonal shifts, from puberty through menopause and beyond.

4. Just like there are food deserts, there are ‘accessibility deserts’ inhibiting access to health and beauty products.

These deserts disproportionately impact consumers of lower socioeconomic standing and consumers of color. In New York City, for instance, there is one grocery store per 13 bodegas; in a Memphis, Tenn., neighborhood where one-third of residents lack access to a vehicle, the nearest supermarket is more than a 40-minute walk away.

One in three Americans lives in health care deserts, where access to medical facilities and health care professionals is limited. Many consumers, meanwhile, are forced to grapple with the compounded effect of living in areas that are both food and health care deserts.

In rural areas, “half of consumers report traveling more than 60 minutes to search for beauty products.” And e-commerce “is not a blanket solution, seeing that 53 percent of consumers are still purchasing products in store regardless of whether that product is fully addressing their needs.”

Brands should strive to limit the trade-offs consumers have to make in buying their products, said the graduates, adding that 70 percent of consumers of color who live in suburban and rural areas report not being able to find beauty products suitable for their hair and skin needs.

“There’s an urgent need for more inclusive retail offerings to better serve non-white consumers, because even when stores are nearby, they still can’t find what they need.”

Bringing beauty products to “gas stations, laundromats, bus terminals; places that are second nature for individuals, but overlooked for distribution,” even if in the form of vending machines, is one way brands can help bridge this accessibility gap.

“The next wave of inclusivity means meeting each and every consumer at every stage and every moment. Our industry’s future depends on our commitment to bridging these gaps and truly making beauty accessible for all,” concluded the presentation.

The 2024 FIT CFMM graduates are: Shivani Banerji; Brandon Kaitto Bernard; Mollie Rose Blank; Amber Cardona; Marissa Casazza; Sabina Gosto Dersh; Tori Orlandra Douglas; Kelsey Marie Galindo; Sanam Sushil Gidwani; Victoria Healey; Jessica Junquet; Erin Krug; Shiyin Lin; Maclean Cole Liotta; David Alejandro Lucas; Monique McKenzie; Shelby Newell; Amanda R. Nieves; Kylie Adele Phelan; Lena Maria Rubiano; Prabhjot Saini; Deja Michelle Stephens; Stephanie Taylor; Mary N. Torelli; Mia Wilkowski.

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