More than renaming or withdrawing fairness products, what is urgently needed is a people’s movement against racism and colourism in India, which would necessarily be against casteism as well
Every once in a long while there is a small shift in the tectonic plates that underlie society in terms of social and cultural systems and relations, and the shared beliefs, values, and laws that influence and organise human behaviour.
It appears that George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States, on May 25, and the resulting resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, have triggered such a shift, with protests swiftly spreading across the US and to other parts of the world. In the US, the geographic dispersal was accompanied by an encouraging racial diffusion. Images of the burgeoning, enduring demonstrations across the country clearly revealed that a wide range of United Statesians – not only African Americans — decided that enough was enough, and that racist violence, especially in the form of targeted police brutality, had to stop.
Business corporations obviously saw which way the wind was blowing. Many were quick to respond with expressions of solidarity and support, as well as commitment of funds, to the fight against racism. However, multinational companies in the skincare business, which earn huge profits from selling skin ‘whitening’ products, especially in Asia and Africa, soon faced a backlash.
The multi-billion-dollar skin lightening market is dominated by a few multinational conglomerates, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and L’Oréal. Highlighting the racial overtones of several of their products, protestors called them out for hypocrisy and “performative wokeness.”
It is against this backdrop that J&J announced on June 19 that it would no longer produce or sell two of its creams with ‘fairness’ in their names. That did not create as much of a ripple in India as the announcement, nearly a week later, by Unilever and its Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), that it would rebrand similar products, removing the words ‘fair/fairness, white/whitening, and light/lightening’ from packaging and communication.
The greater response to HUL’s limited concession is obviously due to the fact that its Fair & Lovely is India's oldest and largest selling skin lightening cream, and has been the undisputed market leader, with a nearly 70 percent share and a loyal consumer base, despite periodic criticism of its promotion of skin colour hierarchies. Estimates of the annual revenue from the product in the domestic market range from Rs 2,000 crore to nearly double that amount.
It is significant that India is the largest market in the world for fairness products, with fairness creams alone fetching nearly Rs 5,000 crore in revenue. It is also worth noting that HUL has merely committed to rebranding, not pulling the plug on its controversial face cream. It is unclear if the actual product and its active ingredients will change.
Activism around fairness products in India, most recently seen in the Dark is Beautiful, #unfairandlovely and India’s Got Colour campaigns, had already managed to push some brands to tweak their messaging. Words like ‘glow’, ‘radiance’, ‘even tone’ and ‘skin clarity’ were already replacing ‘fairness’, ‘whitening’ and ‘skin-lightening’, and the products’ ‘anti-pollution’, ‘oil-control’ and ‘dark spot removal’ properties were increasingly highlighted more than their actual Unique Selling Point (USP).
The draft Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020 — revealed in February — had also reportedly prompted further changes in the marketing campaigns for Fair & Lovely. The proposed changes in the law first enacted in 1954 include fines and imprisonment for those responsible for advertising products that claim to make a person ‘fairer’, appear younger, gain height, improve memory, prevent hair loss and greying, and so on.
It is interesting that a marketing strategy consultant quoted in a recent report has suggested that the problem is really “bad communication” rather than the products and what they promise and promote. “If, as a dark-skinned south Indian woman, I want to lighten my skin tone, how is it anybody’s business?" she asked.
That, however, is really the point: why do women (and evidently men too) with darker complexions seek to lighten their skin tones? Surely it is due to their unhappy experiences with colourism, defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group”.
Kavitha Emmanuel, whose organisation, Women of Worth, launched the Dark is Beautiful campaign in 2009, recently pointed out that discrimination on the basis of skin colour is inextricably linked to other toxic beliefs and practices that represent systemic social injustice, including caste-based bias and oppression.
While the rebranding of Fair & Lovely and the withdrawal of similar products from the market represent a tiny step in the right direction, what is urgently needed is a much more widespread and broad-based people’s movement against racism and colourism in India, which would necessarily be against casteism as well.Ammu Joseph is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author. Views are personal.