"You don't need this cream, you're already so fair," a chemist told this brown-skinned writer in Mumbai a couple of years ago when I happened to glance at a 'fairness' cream. A trip for cough lozenges had turned into an unexpected and belated discovery of endemic racism, seeded by shelves full of these creams and lotions offered by brands that are willing to lean on Indians' desperate fascination to turn fair and lovely.
Fairness creams are a billion dollar industry in India, and these creams are popular across Asia too. In India, fairness is associated with upper caste and class privilege. Darker folk (dusky, if you're on the border and can't be surely slotted) face an uphill battle against this constant discrimination. Salons and beauty parolours will even offer to scrub off your carefully cultivated holiday tan with some industrial-strength scrub, lest you get stuck on the dark side.
Until Bollywood actors suddenly went woke in recent weeks, they were happy endorsers of these products. Rather than outright promotion of fairness, many of the products now use gentler terms to stay popular, as their audience gets more aware. Now, they speak of reducing sunspots over just aiming to be blindingly white. Nevermind that these products have been in the dock for suspected health concerns and have become ingrained in the daily beauty ritual of women—and more recently men—across India and indeed Asia.
While protests against fairness creams have ebbed and flowed multiple times over the past few decades, this new wave of brand wokeness has for the first time seen a company take a stand and actually withdraw its products. In this case, it was Johnson and Johnson, which has withdrawn its Clean and Clear and Neutrogena fairness products from India and Asia.
In an increasingly woke world, it is hard for brands to stay silent when the rage around George Floyd and #BlackLivesMatter reached a crescendo over the past couple weeks. A range of brands and organisations have promised to be more sensitive to race and colour with their work and words, to make investments to help the disadvantaged and to build more empathetic labels.
In Asia, the fairness creams market has had its moment of reckoning (or another moment of reckoning) when this wave spread across the region. For at least a decade or more, in countries such as India, activists have run programs pushing people to rethink the use of these discriminatory products.
However, brands have historically been reluctant to sunset these labels, with some like Unilever softening the discriminatory undertones of its Fair and Lovely range with a foundation that ironically seeks to aid women's empowerment.
While J&J's move to remove is welcome, a large corporation doing this now, riding the coattails of this anti-racism wave, appears opportunistic rather than altruistic. The concerns about these creams are now age-old and have usually been dismissed by these companies. While being purposeful with marketing is in, suddenly growing a conscience and withdrawing seems like a convenient way to score some brand brownie points, rather than be seen as seriously investing in your long-term purpose.
To be truly an advocate for change, companies such as J&J and Unilever need to do more to show they are seriously distancing themselves from this discriminatory category. Withdraw products, educate consumers, change mindsets and make a telling impact in driving both purpose and impact with your marketing dollars. Actions speak louder than words.
Sadly, despite J&J's best intentions, the company's actions are unlikely to see the market for these creams vanishing. As things stand, brands continue to to grow, with a range of international labels including Nivea, Ponds and Garnier, as well as homegrown Lotus Herbals and Biotique, showing that unfortunately even in 2020, fairness products make lovely business sense.
Rahul Sachitanand is associate editor with Campaign Asia-Pacific.