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Business trends

Asia's skin whitening market reckons with global antiracist push

Companies including Johnson & Johnson and Unilever to change product lineup

The "Fair & Lovely" brand of skin lightening product is to change, Unilever's subsidiary in India has said   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Asia's $7.5 billion skin whitening market is under growing scrutiny after three of the biggest global companies in the cosmetics and toiletries industry vowed to change their marketing of popular products, responding to a worldwide increase in anti-racist sentiment.

L'Oreal became the latest group to respond to consumer pressure, announcing over the weekend that its skin evening products would no longer be marketed with the words "fair," "whitening" and "lightening." It followed Unilever, which announced similar intentions last week, and Johnson & Johnson, which is pulling two whitening lines from shelves in Asia and the Middle East.

The changes show how it is increasingly difficult for big consumer brands to stand behind a product's implied message that lighter skin is preferable.

"Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names or claims on our Neutrogena and Clean & Clear dark spot reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone. This was never our intention -- healthy skin is beautiful skin," a spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"The L'Oreal Group has decided to remove the words white/whitening, fair/fairness, light/lightening from all its skin evening products," the French company said in a statement.

They are among a host of consumer goods groups reassessing some of their brands amid antiracist protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in the U.S. state of Minnesota five weeks ago.

But the longer-term question is over how much consumer tastes will change in many parts of Asia, which accounts for more than half of the $13 billion global whitening product market, with China comprising 40% of sales in Asia, Japan 21%, and South Korea 18%, according to Future Market Insights. The global market is expected to grow to over $24 billion by 2027.

Companies such as Japan's Shiseido and South Korea's Laneige, named after the French word for snow, continue to sell products with "white" in their brand names. In East Asian countries and particularly Japan, however, the whitening market has reached a saturation point, with consumers focusing more on anti-aging products and prestige brands, said Kiyokazu Shibukawa, a partner at EY Advisory and Consulting in Tokyo.

"The whitening market is not strong now except for India and Southeast Asia," Shibukawa said.

Skin whitening products continue to be widely available and popular in South and Southeast Asia, where there is a history of equating fairness with beauty, related to status and the influences of the colonial era.

"When you go to the drugstores or the groceries, you will really feel like skin whitening is the way to go because 95% of the lotions are skin whitening and the models are light-skinned women," said Trish Terrado, a social media content creator in the Philippines who started the hashtag #MillennialMorena to advocate for darker-skinned Filipino women.

"If you offer something to customers, they're going to think they need it," she said.

J&J is pulling the Neutrogena Fine Fairness creams and serums from shelves in Asia and the Middle East, as well as Clean & Clear Fairness face wash and lotions, which are sold only in India.

Neither product line is sold in the U.S. The two pulled product lines represented less than 1% of Johnson & Johnson's global beauty sales last year, according to a company representative.

The Fair & Lovely line brought in $560 million in annual sales worldwide for Unilever, whose Hindustan subsidiary last week announced it would remove the word "fair" as well as "lightening" and "whitening" from brands and packaging.

But a number of petitioners say that does not go far enough and want Unilever to stop producing the line. "This product has built upon, perpetuated and benefited from internalized racism and promotes anti-blackness sentiments amongst all its consumers," says a "Ban Fair & Lovely" petition started by three U.S.-based Pakistani women -- including a former employee of Unilever -- which has garnered 14,000 out of a targeted 15,000 signatures in three weeks.

In an interview with Nikkei, the founders of the petition pointed to previous attempts to rebrand whitening products without reformulating the ingredients. In Ghana, where the product line is known as Even & Lovely, recent advertisements continue to show models with fairer complexions over time.

"They claim it doesn't contain any skin bleaching chemicals, but are they transparent enough about this? Will they actually reformulate it?" asked Marvi Ahmed, a doctoral student at Cornell University in New York. Unilever, at the very least, should disclose the percentage composition of niacinamide -- the active ingredient that suppresses melanin -- in their products, said Ahmed and her co-petitioners Hira Hashmi and Anum Chandani.

Asked whether the name change will come with a reformulation of Fair & Lovely products, a Unilever spokesperson said the product will "continue to offer safe and effective ways to make skin glow and provide radiance benefits" using active ingredients including Vitamin B3, or niacin.

The campaigners say substantial marketing has helped to cement the regional standard of equating beauty with fairness.

"You can't ignore these multimillion-dollar advertisements that prey on and perpetuate these ideas," said Chandani, a professional in the U.S. energy industry. "While we were growing up, these ads were on three times a day every day. It's a narrative that's being played in your head."

But they acknowledge there is plenty of support in the South Asian market for such products. "When we started this petition, there was a backlash from people who were not on board," said Hashmi, who worked for Unilever for six years. "We were asked, 'Who are you to question my preference for fair skin?'"

Hashmi called on Unilever CEO Alan Jope to bring the company's cosmetics arm in line with its public antiracist stance and actions taken by its brands. Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's, which was acquired by Unilever in 2000, has been lauded for its detailed four-step statement to address systemic racism.

"Business has a critical role to play in creating an equitable society which is intolerant of intolerance," Jope tweeted in early June, when the antiracist protests broke out.

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