Glossy is proud to present Unfair, a podcast about the global skin-lightening industry and everything it touches, from the demand for lighter skin to the beauty companies selling to it.
In our final episode, Unfair considers the future of the skin lightening industry — and if the criticism it has faced this past summer will or won’t lead to systemic change among its biggest stakeholders.
Unfair is hosted by Priya Rao, executive editor at Glossy, and produced by Digiday senior producer Pierre Bienaimé.
Subscribe to the Glossy Beauty Podcast now on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the podcast’s final episode.
In February 2019, the governor of Virginia found himself at the center of a scandal.
SOUND from ABC report: The all-consuming fire storm swirling around Virginia governor Ralph Northam — the governor overwhelmed tonight by calls to resign, the list growing.
A photo from Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook had surfaced. It showed a man in blackface, standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan costume, holding a drink and smiling for the camera.
Whether Northam was one of those two people or not, the furor was instant.
SOUND from CNN report: If it’s him in blackface it’s a problem; if it’s him in the Klan it’s a problem; if it’s him just pictures with his friends, it’s a problem. And it’s a particularly bad problem because we haven’t heard a word from him. I don’t know how long this has been up.
A lot of fellow Democrats called on Northam to resign, including his predecessor, both of Virginia’s senators and just about every Democrat running for president at the time. And it seemed like Northam really was thinking about stepping down.
SOUND from ABC report: Tonight the governor is now asking his own cabinet for more time to decide his next move.
But while op-ed writers filled newspaper columns and cable news coverage continued breathlessly… something happened. And that something was nothing.
SOUND from WJHL report: This is his first official public appearance since last weekend, when he denied being in a racist photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page. For the past week governor Northam has ignored calls from other politicians and state leaders to resign.
Northam laid low for a while. He avoided public appearances, even as he continued his work and signed or vetoed bills at his desk. And two months later, as one headline in the New York Times wrote about the whole controversy: “It Just Went Poof.” If you Google “Ralph Northam” today, you have to go through pages of results before finding anything about the unsavory episode.
Why am I bringing this up in a podcast about the skin lightening industry? Sure, that industry and this scandal both have a lot to do with race. But they’re also both good examples of how, when the political pressure builds, sometimes you can just ride it out.
There are billions of dollars at stake for consumer packaged goods companies that sell fairness creams. Some of them are making a few tweaks to their branding. But few are pulling out of the market completely, or even issuing any apologies.
The news cycles, after all, will keep on moving. Tomorrow there will be another scandal, involving someone else, and it’ll be their turn to soak up attention. Right?
In our final episode, we look at the future of the skin lightening industry — and at whether the calls to action it has faced these past few months could lead to serious change… or not.
This is Unfair, a podcast brought to you by Glossy. I’m Priya Rao.
Whether many people care about the problems presented by the skin lightening industry or not, one thing is for sure: a lot of them love skin care.
HAY: There’s a Japanese toner that’s made with sake: It’s Kikumasamune. I’m probably butchering that.
That’s Don Hay. He’s a moderator of the “Asian Beauty” group on Reddit. If you’re not familiar with Reddit, it’s an internet forum. A really big one.
HAY: And I’ve watched it grow from 200,000 users to, I think, we’re about to break 1.1 million.
RAO to HAY: Wow, that’s, that’s incredible.
“Asian Beauty” is, in fact, one of the very biggest communities talking about beauty on Reddit. And earlier this year, the group banned all discussions about skin lighteners.
HAY: We realized exactly how toxic it can be towards someone’s mindset to feel as if they have to use whitening products and just to push it further seemed wrong to us, really.
There wasn’t any resistance to the ban, Don said. The group’s many thousands of contributors seemed to agree with the decision. And their old forum entries that discussed skin lightening products were left intact.
HAY: At the end of the day, it happened. We kind of just have to move on from it and understand that now that we’re here, we shouldn’t really be talking about that anymore.
“Asian Beauty” was able to make some changes, to move with the times. And Don definitely has opinions on how the beauty industry should stop trading in skin lighteners, too.
Of course, it’s way easier to update the rules of an internet forum than to change supply chains, product packaging, and marketing campaigns.
HAY: I mean, it’s money. We don’t make money off of modding.
“Modding” means “moderating,” FYI.
HAY: We enjoy the sub[reddit] and we want to watch it grow and be with our community. But you know, brands, they know that those products sold extremely well.
Unilever, for one, is changing its best-selling fairness product, Fair & Lovely, to Glow & Lovely. The company told us that this roll-out would take time to complete: They’re introducing the new branding in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Middle East… everywhere Fair & Lovely was sold. Here’s a commercial announcing the change.
In the commercial, Indian actress Yami Gautam holds a tube of the stuff. On it, you can see the words “Fair & Lovely is now Glow & Lovely.“ Her hands switch from covering the product’s new name, and then its old one. Unilever really wants to make it clear that the product customers have known for years is still on store shelves.
But Don wishes beauty companies would drop out of the market entirely. He’s not optimistic.
HAY: I think every mega-conglomerate like that doesn’t care about their consumer at the end of the day. They will sell whatever they can and kind of put on a mask of ‘Yeah, of course we care. Look at us, we’re getting rid of this one toner that wasn’t doing so well in the first place.’
Still, he thinks change could come if pressure from the public doesn’t let up.
RAO to HAY: So what do you expect from the future? Do you think these companies are actually going to divest from this category or these products?
HAY: I think they’re going to be forced to. I think that as the conversation gets louder and louder, they’re going to be forced to whether they like it or not. Right now they’re taking baby steps to see what they can still get away with.
RAO to HAY: Do you buy it?
HAY: Oh, of course not.
One thing to point out is that the pressure brought about by Black Lives Matter in the first place may be waning. Support for the movement stood at two thirds in June. A survey last month put it at 55%. Even in the wake of George Floyd’s death, as support hit a high and millions were out in protest, some activists warned that the fight for justice is a long game. Making gains is the work of years, of a generation. Not of one summer season.
Of course, there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between support for BLM and active opposition to skin lighteners. Black Lives Matter is a decentralized movement more than it is an organization. And police violence is the core concern.
Still, corporate hypocrisy — saying Black Lives Matter in the West, and selling skin lighteners elsewhere in the world — is what led to this shift in how beauty brands present themselves.
When we first had the idea to make this podcast, we honestly thought that some of the big companies that we’ve been talking about — Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, L’Oréal, the Estée Lauder Companies, and yeah, Procter & Gamble — would be willing to talk to us.
We’ve seen some changes from them this year, after all, changing product names and even cutting a few fairness products, in Johnson & Johnson’s case. So we figured this would be the time to talk about those changes. But beyond a few written responses, none of these companies spoke to us. So we did the next best thing, and heard from someone who used to work in the business.
MALOUF: Sure. So my name is Alex Malouf, I used to work in Procter and Gamble — spent seven years there working communications across what is called the India, Middle East and Africa region.
Procter & Gamble owns Olay. And Olay sells a line of fairness creams called “Natural White.”
COMMERCIAL: Do you really use Olay Natural White? Of course!
Alex still works in communications. But he didn’t mince words about his old workplace.
MALOUF: Given what’s happened to Black Lives Matter, I really would just implore a lot of the FMCGs to do more…
FMCG? That stands for fast-moving consumer goods — like cosmetics.
MALOUF: They should be put to pasture. They should be part of part of history. They should not be on our shelves.
Alex is actually somewhat optimistic on this. Yes, there’s money to be made with fairness creams — and what good is a corporation if it isn’t working toward the bottom line?
He also talks about the reputational risk. One of his job titles at P&G was “reputation manager.”
MALOUF: Are consumers seeing what is happening with this product segment in emerging markets, you know, back in Europe and the U.S.? Are they making decisions in terms of which products they buy, which brands they buy, based on what they’re seeing in these markets? The companies behind these brands really need to think long and hard: Is that market worth the risk? The reputational risk?
So far, we’re still thinking along the lines of profits and losses. Cool. But Alex is also holding out hope that P&G and others could quit this market because — brace yourself — it’s the right thing to do.
MALOUF: You know, I’ve worked with a lot of the people in the companies, not just simply in my old company, but others as well. And, you know, very much a lot of them want to do the right thing. They’re driven by strong values. And this just does not work within that value set. It very much is the wrong thing to do.
If you’ll recall, in previous episodes we’ve talked about the different layers of the global skin lightening industry. There’s the big, western CPG companies that Alex worked at for a time. But there’s also a bunch of small or mid-sized companies that aren’t on the global stage. Some of them exist in East and South Asia, bringing in pennies where the Unilevers and the L’Oréals of the world bring in dollars.
We talked to Alex about this, too. If we’re considering possible futures for the skin lightening industry, what would even happen if the big companies pulled out?
MALOUF: I think others would then turn on the local brands and say, you know, ‘Why are you not doing something similar to this?’ So the pressure would grow for the local brands as well to try and do something and not act as if it’s simply business as usual. Obviously, what we’ve seen in 2020 when it comes to racism, hasn’t been seen probably since the 1960s. It would be an interesting point to get to but you know, the multinationals have to have to take action first. And I think that’s that’s the bigger question because you know, they’re the ones with the lion’s share of the market.
I call this optimistic because there’s another, more obvious scenario. The big companies leave. And the mid-size ones take the money that was left on the table, thank you very much.
That seems especially plausible given how political pressure doesn’t have the same repercussions in some markets compared to others.
HAY: I don’t think Eastern companies will think like that, because a lot of our things just don’t translate over, over quite well.
Don Hay, who we heard from earlier, grew up in Brooklyn. But his parents are from Hong Kong, a place he holds close to his heart. I asked him for his thoughts on this.
HAY: Assuming Western companies do decide to withdraw from these countries due to pressure from pressure from the Western world, I think these companies will eventually get bigger and I you know…
By “these companies,” here, Don is talking about the smaller ones.
HAY: I hope their bubble pops and they have to put they have to withdraw too. Maybe I’m just being an eternal pessimist about this, but I don’t think much change is gonna come from it. They’re just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.
It’s easy to agree with Don on this point. Even if the pressure from western consumers stayed strong, leading CPG companies to drop skin lightening products completely — not just rename them — other companies ought to be happy to step in. Of course, they’re facing their own set of domestic criticism. But in Don’s opinion, it’s hard to see that making a difference.
HAY: As someone who was raised in an Asian culture, like the colorism is so deeply ingrained. Even my generation, younger people in their 20s still very much believe that pale is beautiful in a lot of these countries.
You can’t talk about the future of an industry without talking about younger shoppers. And a lot of ink gets spilled about millennials and Gen Z. They’re lazy! They’re idealistic! They’re this! They’re that! They’re killing the cereal industry! (millennials get accused of killing a lot of industries).
But polls do show that these generations want to stand for something. Most millennials and Gen Z consumers say they’re more likely to buy from a brand that aligns with their values.
At least, that’s what market analysts and social commentators are saying. But it’s also visible in the numbers. Indie beauty brands have proven a lot more attractive for Gen-Z shoppers, both in terms of product and brand values, than legacy conglomerates. And a lot of them didn’t even exist ten years ago.
It doesn’t have to be every cause — but when a brand says they’re going to stand behind something, younger shoppers hold their feet to the fire. They don’t want to just see brands posting black squares in support of BLM on Instagram. They want companies to make substantial changes in their product lines, their donated dollars, and who gets to climb their corporate ladders.
In the case of one millennial influencer, that extends to the brands she wants to work with, too.
NOOR: Whenever I work with a brand, I really try to work with brands that their activism is not performative.
Nabela Noor is a mega beauty influencer, with 1.6 million followers on Instagram. But she doesn’t quote unquote fit traditional European beauty standards. She’s Bangladeshi American, and plus size.
Growing up, Nabela wanted to do anything but celebrate the things that made her different.
NOOR: So I grew up every morning wishing that I would wake up with blond hair, blue eyes, and with my name being Rebecca, with light skin. Because that’s what I thought beauty had to be. That’s what was in school, that was on the television, that’s what was around me. So I thought I had to be this to be beautiful. And it wasn’t until I found social media, found creators of color who loved the skin that they’re in, that I felt empowered enough to do the same. And then that’s when I was able to really discern: ‘Oh, this is a problem.’
While conversions around diversity and inclusion are expected in the U.S., Nabela understands that in some parts of the world white beauty standards are still the norm.
In fact, she feels like the average Bangladeshi consumer’s skin tone isn’t even being catered to in Bangladesh.
It’s one thing for American companies to take a while to offer 40 or 50 shades of foundation. But when your country is made up of people of color, that seems especially neglectful.
Nabela was browsing around online recently — like she does, being an influencer and all — when she stumbled on a Bangladeshi e-commerce site. The site also sells skin lighteners, by the way.
NOOR: The foundations that they were selling in the shop weren’t even made for brown people. They were made for lighter-skinned, you know, fairer complexions. And that was what was being sold. So most consumers in Bangladesh wouldn’t even be able to find their exact match via the shop because the shop was only selling really light complexions. And it was like three or four products. And I’m like, imagine being in Bangladesh wanting to buy foundation, and not even being able to have your complexion on the shelf, because you’re being fed this idea that you need to use complexion shades lighter than your own.
Kinita Shenoy agrees with Nabela.
SHENOY: It’s very difficult to understand how ingrained the idea of colorism is in our societies.
She was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka edition in 2017 and 2018. And what led her to resign from that job is an experience that, in her own words, radicalized her.
Like a lot of people who cover beauty for a living, Kinita received all kinds of products in the mail — items that companies hoped she’d write about. I get these too, by the way. It’s just a part of the job.
Some of the things she received were skin lighteners, including from Pond’s, a brand owned by Unilever. On the whole, Kinita rejects skin lighteners. She had said as much on her own social media accounts in the past.
SHENOY: I was very clear about the fact that I thought fairness creams were just the worst. So even when I joined Cosmopolitan, I was clear about that. I said, ‘listen, I would never condone this stuff.’ You know what you’re getting into by hiring me, essentially.
Kinita received a package at her own home, too. And then people at Unilever were texting her, asking her to post about the products on Instagram.
She went ahead and did that, on Instagram Stories… but her post was critical. “I’m not really on board with the concept of ‘White Beauty,’” she wrote. White Beauty was the name on one of the products. She covered up the brand’s name. But that didn’t stop what happened next.
SHENOY: That’s essentially when shit hit the fan. I don’t know if I can see shit on this podcast.
RAO to SHENOY: You can totally say shit; you can totally say shit.
SHENOY: But yeah, that’s when shit hit the fan. I think about a week later, I got called in. And it was just a huge scene. Apparently, Unilever had been fuming and they said, you know, ‘Who the hell is this girl?’ Fun fact, they kept calling me girl throughout this entire thing, which I think is also super insulting and very sexist.
BuzzFeed News reported Kinita’s story for the first time this past summer. They covered details about how Unilever threatened to pull ads from the magazine’s pages. That was a big deal, as Kinita told us.
SHENOY: As an advertiser, the holding company is probably the biggest advertiser across Southeast Asia. So the bottom line is: you don’t mess with them. Something like 10 to 12 pages of advertising per month, which is the lion’s share of advertising. And they pulled it. They pulled it for the next I think three or four months in order to quote unquote, teach me a lesson.
Unilever said that they apologized at the time. A managing director there said he had gotten in touch to “atone for the actions of colleagues in Unilever Sri Lanka.” Kinita tells us she didn’t receive an apology herself, though. And BuzzFeed News also reported that Unilever even told the magazine’s publisher that they should either fire Kinita, or run pages of positive coverage for Pond’s whitening creams.
But after all that, Unilever’s advertising did come back.
SHENOY: The head of Unilever, in Sri Lanka, apologized to the publishers — brought back all the advertising. And then when I made sure the ads were back and everyone’s jobs were secure, I handed my resignation and I just politely said, ‘I don’t think this is a good fit for me,’ and I left.
Hearst Magazines, which owns Cosmopolitan, didn’t return our request for comment. When we reached Unilever, they wrote to us that, quote “a member of Unilever exercised extremely poor judgement by insisting that the magazine give the product positive editorial coverage. This should never have happened, and we apologised for this significant misjudgement.”
In the years since this episode, though, Kinita’s contempt for skin lighteners has kept running pretty hot.
SHENOY: Of course it messes people up. Of course it messes kids up. I’ve grown up here. Every single product on the shelves, every cream, every sunblock, is all whitening. You’d be hard pressed to find something that doesn’t have some kind of whitening agent in it. Imagine living like that, being surrounded by constant messaging telling you that you’re ugly, just because you’re brown. Like we’re all brown. We’re all shades of brown here. And we’re all told every day that we’re hideous. Like, that’s tough. That’s a really, really tough thing to overcome. And I think it’s horrible. But frankly, I don’t, I don’t know how it’s going to change. I can’t see what the antidote is to a billion dollar industry.
Kinita says she doesn’t see an antidote. But a few different times, she talked about one solution she envisions to undo the damage of the skin lightening industry: counter-advertising.
SHENOY: There’s no point just saying, ‘Let’s ban this.’ Of course it needs to stop. But we need to stop people wanting to bleach themselves. We need to stop people telling each other that they are ugly, because they’re dark. We need to stop this entire system. And the system is so ingrained in every single one of us that I can’t imagine how it’s ever going to stop without a very large and concerted marketing blitz.
Of course, that could just be another bit of wishful thinking, up there with Alex’s ideas about a domino effect that would occur if big companies left the market for skin lightening.
One of the problems, Kinita says, is that there isn’t even all that much dialogue about skin lightening.
SHENOY: this conversation has obviously been going on in the West for a while. It has reached here, I do agree. But again, it’s the very 1%, very elite, very English-speaking audience. It has not reached the mainstream, either in India or Sri Lanka. I know there have been some grassroots activists who have done work in the area, there have been a couple of Bollywood actors who have spoken out about this, which is probably going to get a lot more attention. But in general, no. So I think there needs to be a proper amount of advertising spend and marketing spend to reverse some of these narratives. Otherwise nothing is going to change.
If we’ve learned anything while reporting this podcast, it’s that the skin lightening industry — not just the products, but the idea and appeal of whiter skin — is impossible to untangle from how people think and go about their lives.
The demand for skin lightening has existed for hundreds of years, before capitalism absorbed it as just one of the many ways that it creates value.
Corporations today play a huge part in that market. Sure, they’re responding to something that already existed. But they’re also encouraging its growth, and expanding its physical borders.
They’re the ones activists can expect answers from. How can they justify selling something that implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, communicates that lighter skin is more desirable?
Whether future changes happen from the top down or the bottom up, from regulatory limits affecting supply or new consumer trends on the demand side… Whether anything changes at all… is something that analysts, activists, and even the corporations themselves can’t truly answer.
Unfair was brought to you by Glossy. Our producer is Pierre Bienaimé, who also produced the music. A huge thanks to everyone at Glossy who lent us their ears as we made this project. And thanks also to those who took the time to speak with us about sometimes personal issues. Stay tuned to the Glossy Beauty Podcast, where we’ll have more to listen to starting next week.