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Unilever: Controversial skin lightening products attract criticism in South Asia

Hindustan Unilever’s Fair & Lovely was launched in 1975 and is India’s best known fairness brand. The company announced in June 2020, that it will change the name of its skin-lightening cosmetics range Fair & Lovely and stop using terms such as “whitening” in its marketing, but will continue selling the popular product.

Cosmetics companies have come under the firing line as critics highlighted the disparity between supportive Black Lives Matter posts and the continued profiteering from products that promote colorism. The anti-racism activism that has swelled since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month has reignited debate over the products.

More than 11,000 people have signed a petition calling on Unilever to stop selling Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening product marketed in India and the Middle East. Commercials for the lotion have shown dark-skinned women using it to lighten their skin and then becoming more successful as a result. Activist have campaigned for years for Unilever and similar companies to drop the branding or stop selling lightening creams altogether; particularly as adverts for these products have featured high profile Bollywood celebrities and in the past promoted their ability to dramatically whiten complexions.  Priyanka Chopra Jonas, has been pilloried on social media for hypocrisy in supporting the ‘Black Lives Matter movement’ as well as having served as an ambassador for lightening products for many years.

Unilever’s decision to change its name has been received with backlash; with many arguing that the company has failed to address the root issue.

Moreover, in February 2020, Norway announced it had issued a ban on Hindustan Unilever’s Fair & Lovely skin whitening creams due to the discovery of toxic metal mercury and hydroquinone. The European Union’s Rapid Alert System for Non-Food Products (Rapex) points out that the skin lightening cream did not comply with the Cosmetic Products Regulation of Norway. HUL is said to be investigating the possibility of the products being counterfeit.

Skin-lightening is a multimillion-dollar industry in south Asia, China, and parts of Africa and it is clear that Unilever has no intention to stop selling these products even after public outcry.