Beauty needs to become more accessible to be inclusive: Key FIT Capstone takeaways

There is no inclusivity without accessibility.

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

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The dissertation, presented by the 25-person graduates, outlines an uncompromising vision of inclusive beauty, one that considers the needs of marginalized consumers—including those with disabilities, people of color, those of low socioeconomic status, or otherwise facing barriers to access—at every step of the brand-building process and product lifecycle.

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

1. Social responsibility and financial opportunities go hand in hand.

“Ignoring consumers with disabilities is no longer passive surveillance,” said one graduate, citing research from Return on Disability that shows 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 affected by a disability – whether as a caregiver, financial provider or sufferer – and with data showing a positive correlation between accessibility and performance, lack of accessibility translates into a missed market opportunity.

2. Every step of the product journey can – and should be optimized for accessibility.

A. Packaging

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

  • Consumers with visual impairments need clear ways to differentiate between different products on the shelves, going beyond Braille, which varies by language and is read by only 10 percent of the visually impaired population.

  • Consumers with arthritis or motor disabilities benefit from packaging with easy-open caps and other design tweaks. An example of this is the matte finish of Rare Beauty’s liquid blush, which provides a good grip, and the intentionally low-friction design of the cap of the same product.

  • Neurodivergent consumers want to avoid ‘overstimulation, which can happen from harsh and distracting textures and bright colors.’

B. Omnichannel shopping

Retail environments were identified as the top barrier to entry by disabled consumers, after product and packaging. Sephora Europe’s new colour-coded shopping baskets (black for those seeking assistance and red for those who are not) are an example of creating more seamless shopping experiences.

There are also online barriers that can be improved with “clear product descriptions, customizable user experiences like third-party widgets that can adjust font size, contrast, colors and more, and AI-powered voice assistants” – all of which can increase the opportunities that prevent consumers from shopping independently.

C. Marketing strategies

Inclusive shopping experiences are hampered 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 that these instances are often limited to wheelchair users or amputees, “neglecting the broader spectrum of visible and invisible disabilities.” Brands like Elf Beauty, which counts Paralympic swimmer Anastasia Pagonis as an ambassador, and Gucci, which signed Ellie Goldstein, a model with Down syndrome, are among those making strides in meaningful representation.

3. The intersection between beauty and wellness is not complete without a greater commitment to understanding women’s health.

The 2024 CFMM graduates’ own research shows that 72 percent of women believe it is “extremely important” that beauty brands support women’s health and wellness initiatives. At the same time, seven in 10 women feel “undervalued, misrepresented and neglected” in the beauty space, despite being the industry’s largest target group.

The growing convergence between beauty and wellness — including topical solutions, supplements, and household and functional fragrances — is a $141 billion opportunity, according to Nielsen, and a connection that 95 percent of women want brands to address, according to the college graduate survey.

Increased funding for research, product innovation and brand acquisitions – such as L Catterton’s recent acquisition of Naomi Watts’ menopausal beauty brand Stripes – are critical to meeting the needs of female consumers throughout their hormonal shifts, from puberty to menopause and beyond.

4. Just as there are food deserts, there are “accessibility deserts” that hinder access to health and beauty products.

These deserts disproportionately impact consumers of lower socio-economic status and consumers of color. In New York City, for example, there is one supermarket for every thirteen bodegas; In a neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, where a third of residents don’t have access to a vehicle, the nearest grocery store is more than a 40-minute walk away.

One in three Americans live in healthcare deserts, where access to medical facilities and healthcare professionals is limited. Many consumers, meanwhile, are forced to grapple with the consequences of living in areas that are both food and healthcare deserts.

In rural areas, “half of consumers say they travel more than 60 minutes to find beauty products.” And e-commerce “isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, as 53 percent of consumers still buy products in-store, regardless of whether the product fully meets their needs.”

Brands should aim to reduce the trade-offs consumers have to make when purchasing their products, the graduates said, adding that 70 percent of consumers of color living in suburban and rural areas report they can’t find beauty products that work for their hair and skin needs.

“There is an urgent need for a more inclusive retail offering to better serve non-white consumers, because even if stores are close by, they still can’t find what they need.”

By bringing beauty products to “gas stations, laundromats, bus stations; places people take for granted but are overlooked in distribution,” even if it’s in the form of vending machines, brands can help close this accessibility gap.

“The next wave of inclusivity means meeting every consumer at every stage, at every moment. The future of our industry depends on our commitment to bridging this gap and making beauty truly accessible to all,” the presentation concludes.

The 2024 FIT CFMM graduates are: Starring 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, and Mia Wilkowski.

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