Following a wave of U.S. companies like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s and Mrs. Butterworth’s being criticized for racist imagery and branding, the Western message went East.

On June 19, Johnson & Johnson said it would stop selling dark-spot reducers, which serve to lighten skin, within its Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clear Fairness by Clean & Clear lines that are sold in in Asia and the Middle East. Unilever followed suit by stating it would rename its Fair & Lovely line that is marketed in India specifically as a way to attain lighter skin. It said it would also remove the words “fair,” “fairness,” “white,” “whitening,” “light” and “lightening” from all of its brands and products. L’Oréal is doing the same for its products, with the offerings and words found predominantly in its Garnier line internationally.

In research published in August 2019, Grand View Research found that the market size of global skin lightening products was $8.3 billion in 2018, with the Asia Pacific region being the largest market at just over 54% of sales. Drilling down further, in the cream category (which is the largest product segment at 53%) the top-five ranking countries in 2019, based on sales, were China, Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea.

Conglomerates are newly recognizing that it is not possible to actively be against racism in one part of the world and still promote colorism in others. But marketers have long targeted different regions with specific products and campaigns. This is especially true in the world’s most populous markets, India and China.

“The credibility of much of this communication or influence can be questioned in hindsight,” said Ninad Shah, founder of event company Brothers Incorporated, which puts on the India Make Up Show. “Brands have capitalized on stereotypical notions of caste, color and race, especially when [they] are addressing the beauty industry. Brands and publications across India relate ‘good skin’ with words like ‘smooth,’ ‘young,’ ‘pore-less,’ ‘bright,’ ‘white,’ ‘fair’ and ‘pearl-like.’ [Doing] anything to achieve fairer skin is the sentiment within society that still exists, irrespective of caste, education, social status or any factor.”

This is underscored by brands like India’s Fair & Lovely, which is owned by Unilever. “For a company that spares no measure in touting its purpose agenda, Unilever has a skeleton in its closet,” said Dipanjan Chatterjee, vp and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “Home to such purpose-centric brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Dove, this consumer packaged mega-company has, without remorse even under fire, profited off a singularly racist phenomenon: skin-whitening. Fair & Lovely, a skin-whitening cream that used to come with a shade guide, generates over $500 million in revenue from India alone for Unilever’s India group. This business feeds off an underlying social preference for fairer skin in large parts of Asia, likely resulting from a lasting impact of the deep roots of colonialism, and is brazenly on display in matrimonial ads and dating sites.”

Just two years ago, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman made his case for the existence of the Indian brand on stage with writer Anand Giridharadas. “We could stop selling Fair & Lovely tomorrow, and you know better than I do, [there would be] horrible bleaching products [selling] in India, because it’s so embedded in the culture. And then you could stop selling your sun care products, because there are horrible things in sun care products. In fact, you might stop all the cosmetics companies. But by doing that, you’re not solving the underlying issue we’re talking about here of how to make society more inclusive,” he said.

Polman was right that whiteness is embedded in Indian culture. Though my parents immigrated to the U.S. in the ’70s and I was the first U.S.-born member of my family a decade later, I was routinely told not to “get too dark” and to “stay out of the sun” for much of my childhood. I was already considered darker skinned compared to my very fair mother. And just last summer, those words were reiterated by numerous Indian relatives before my wedding, not only for myself, but also for my niece and nephews, out of worry they’d “look too tan” in wedding pictures after a summer at the beach.

As conglomerates pull back from their racist branding, homegrown brands have a sales opportunity since the Indian consumer still wants these products. Skin-care and health-care company Emami Group is ranked No. 3 in moisturizer sales in India; its whitening products include men’s fairness cream Emami Glow & Handsome, previously known as Fair and Handsome.

“Can we imagine how many generations and the quantum of people that have been made to believe that fairer skin is superior? How many of them were made to believe that fairer skin will provide them with higher status?,”  said Shah.

The skin fairness industry represents about 50% of India’s entire skincare market, with estimates of its worth varying between $US 450–535 million, per the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

That rampant colorism remains prevalent in Southeast Asian is largely due to culture and media, said activist and filmmaker Nina Davuluri, who is at work on filming her global documentary series, “COMPLEXion.” (Distribution plans have not been set.) It chronicles racism and colorism around the globe, starting in India and Bangladesh. When Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014, the first Indian-origin contestant to win the pageant, Indian newspapers stated: “Miss America Nina Davuluri: Too ‘Indian’ to ever be Miss India.

“Companies are perpetuating and profiting off this white standard, but Bollywood has a huge amount of influence, from the actors and actresses to the casting directors,” said Davuluri, who started a petition in June for the biggest purveyors of these products — Unilever, Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal and Johnson & Johnson — to “stop the production of skin whitening products and toxic messaging.” At press time, the petition had 4,199 signatures.

Case in point: Bollywood actors-turned-international stars like Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Disha Patini have starred in beauty campaigns for skin whitening products in the past. Now, they are all speaking out against racism and for Black Lives Matter. But it’s activists and influencers like Davuluri and Deepica Mutyala, Live Tinted founder, who are actively pushing the conversation forward.

“What we found in filming ‘COMPLEXion’ is that people would say, ‘Oh, no — no we aren’t racist,’ but then would  say something in the same breath about their grandmother preferring fairness,” she said. “It has become a core belief for these women that being white is prettier and better.”

Thus far, Johnson & Johnson has taken the clearest stance yet, while its counterparts are still negotiating the cost of eliminating moneymaking products and brands entirely. In terms of companies responding to societal pressure, Amazon removed skin-bleaching products high in mercury from its site last winter (however, it still offers skin-lightening creams without mercury).

Ultimately, Chatterjee said change will come down to brand values. “The reason Fair & Lovely feels economic pressure to not back down is the large market opportunity. And despite a groundswell of protest, the fairer-skin phenomenon is so deeply ingrained in some societies that the opportunity is not going anywhere, anytime soon. And that’s where brand character comes in,” he said. “In 1994, Ikea ran an ad with a gay couple at a time when the idea was well outside the mainstream of acceptability — not because there was a market to exploit, but because there was a belief to be expressed. Coca-Cola opened the mainstream door to gender-neutrality in its 2018 Superbowl ad. Brands, especially those with big megaphones, can shape culture. If they choose to accept it, that responsibility is theirs. When it comes to skin-whitening creams, some of the major consumer brands of the world have fallen short on proactively doing the right thing. Now perhaps they might at least stop doing the wrong thing.” –Priya Rao 

The conversation is similar in China. As the second-largest beauty market in the world after the U.S., skin-whitening skin-care products are a significant source of sales for every global beauty company. According to data from Euromonitor, whitening lotions alone in China are worth $3.7 billion, skin-whitening face masks are worth $1.5 billion, and toners are worth $984 million. 

“Whitening is one of the most popular skin-care functions among Chinese consumers,” said Ye Chen, a research analyst at Chemlinked.

Amie Song, a senior advisory specialist at Gartner agreed, stating, “Chinese consumers are very efficacy-driven, and skin-whitening is still one of the main needs for skin-care consumers.” As is the case in most of India, “Chinese consumers’ demand for whitening products has been increasing in recent years. Younger customers, between 20-29 years old, are accounting for about 50% of people that are focusing on whitening skin care products,” said Jacquelien Brussee, the general manager at consultancy Labbrand. 

For Unilever, changes have not yet been made to products in China, including Pond’s Flawless White collection including toner, serum and face cream claiming to have whitening properties. Other products do not have whitening in the name, but are marketed as “whitening,” such as Pond’s Vital Youth Serum and Dermalogica’s vitamin C serum in China. In addition to its Fair & Lovely changes in India, Unilever is in the process of updating Pond’s White Beauty products in Indonesia, changing its marketing language to “Spotless Glow for Every Shade.”

Johnson & Johnson-owned Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness whitening masks are listed as “no longer for sale” on the brand’s Tmall Global shop. Multiple L’Oréal Group brands are still selling whitening products in China. L’Oréal Paris, for example, has a White Perfect essence that was promoted heavily by the brand and its celebrity ambassadors for the 6.18 shopping festival on Tmall. The product is still available for sale on Tmall today. Other L’Oréal Group brand products touting whitening include Lancôme (that uses “whitening” language with its Clarifique series) and SkinCeuticals, which “built its growth and momentum in 2019 with its whitening serum focusing on ingredients,” said Song. Other brands in the group with whitening products in China include Kiehl’s and Vichy.

For several Procter & Gamble-owned brands, whitening products are their best-selling heroes. In China, Olay is heavily dependent on promoting whitening, with its ProX essence that it dubs the “little white bottle;” it accounted for 50% of the brand’s total unit sales on Tmall in 2018 and 62% in 2019, said Song. ProX “was the third-most-purchased personal care product” for Tmall’s 11.11 shopping festival last year, said Brussee.

Estée Lauder sells a “Crescent White” skin-care product in China and also promotes other products as whitening. 

Overt racism has been shown in ads in China in the past. A 2016 ad by Shanghai Leishang Cosmetics for its laundry detergent brand Qiaobi featured a Chinese woman placing a Black man in a washing machine, and then pulling out a Chinese man. The toothpaste brand Darlie, which used be called “Darkie” in English, is still named “Black People Toothpaste” in China. Parent company Colgate-Palmolive announced in June that it is conducting a review of the brand.

According to Chen, the conglomerates’ announcements to pull or rebrand brands and products received a negative reaction from native consumers. Both L’Oréal and Johnson & Johnson’s decisions became trending topics on Weibo, with over 69 million views and 120,000 comments on Johnson & Johnson’s decision.

“The news of J&J pulling skin-lightening products from Asia was received on Chinese social media by mostly opposition and criticism,” said Brussee. “They are opposed to this idea of product cancellation because the preference toward lighter skin in itself did not originate from a racially charged context, yet it is being taken away because of that. It feels to them like an overreach. One should know that the aesthetics of lighter or whiter skin is deeply rooted in the Chinese culture.”  In China, beauty standards prizing lighter skin are often described as an aesthetic choice, she added.

But anti-Black racism has been an ongoing problem in China that has been heightened during the Covid-19 pandemic. A U.S. State Department travel alert advised African-Americans not to travel to Guangzhou due to racial discrimination, stating, “Police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin,” and “African-Americans have also reported that some businesses and hotels refuse to do business with them.” In addition, landlords have been evicting Black residents and refusing to rent apartments to Black tenants, explicitly saying their race is the reason. Businesses in Guangzhou were photographed with Jim Crow-style signs denying service to Black people, and racist posts have spread across Chinese social media. 

Asian beauty conglomerates heavily emphasize whitening, such as Shiseido with its White Lucent products and Procter & Gamble-owned SK-II’s Genoptics Essence.

If international brands remove whitening language, local Chinese beauty brands will not be under the same pressure to do so. According to Brussee, these local brands include OSM, Pechoin, Chando, Inoherb, Marubi and HomeFacialPro. Chen said that HomeFacialPro, a Chinese skin-care brand reminiscent of The Ordinary, is a top seller on Tmall with its product touting whitening, while the Pearl Lucent Whitening Essence by Chinese skin-care brand OSM is also popular.

“If international players would completely withdraw the whitening line from the local market, it actually could mean giving up their market share to local competitors,” said Brussee. –Liz Flora