Unilever takes heat for Fair & Lovely in India as it criticizes racial injustice elsewhere
Like many marketers, Unilever has supported racial justice in recent weeks and given money—more than $1 million total via brands that include Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, SheaMoisture and Axe—to related causes.
Unilever, however, sells a brand called Fair & Lovely in India and elsewhere in Asia that makes skin-lightening creams, which spawned social-media backlash and more than two dozen change.org petitions calling on the company either to discontinue the brand or change its name. The most visible of those efforts has amassed more than 10,000 signatures to date. Unilever declined or did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Scrapping Fair & Lovely would cost Unilever a lot more than the $1 million it’s pledged for racial justice, or more than the $100 million pledged this year for COVID-19 related relief—and more even than the $1.1 billion over 10 years it pledged earlier this week to battle climate change and preserve natural resources.
Fair & Lovely had sales of more than $500 million last year in India alone, according to Euromonitor, where it led what the firm classifies as the “basic moisturizers” sub-category with a 48.6 percent share.
Outside of social media comments or change.org petitions globally, Fair & Lovely faces an uncertain regulatory future in India. The government there in February proposed an amendment to existing advertising laws that would make ads promoting fair skin illegal and punishable by up to five years in jail. Whether that would require Unilever to change the Fair & Lovely brand name is unclear.
Already, recent ads shown on Fair & Lovely’s YouTube channel focus more on BB creams, eliminating skin imperfections, or “glow,” as opposed to fairness. The same ad that two years ago advertised a “Winter Fairness” product was edited to say “Winter Glow” late last year.
Still, the brand name remains, as does a legacy of being India’s, and probably the world’s, leading skin-lightening brand. That’s fueled plenty of social media blow-back. The top comment on Unilever’s “We have a responsibility for racial justice” Instagram post from June 3 is: “All this while you make millions from whitening cream? Double standards to say the least #boycottunilever.”
The leading change.org petition asks Unilever to stop producing and marketing Fair & Lovely, reassign employees to other brands, and issue a public statement “acknowledging the part Fair & Lovely may have played in indoctrinating anti-blackness sentiment.”
Unilever isn’t alone in selling skin-lightening products. A Huffington Post Canada post noting the change.org petition also cited similar products from Beiersdorf’s Nivea, Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena and L’Oréal’s Garnier—all of which have made anti-racism statements and/or donations in recent weeks.
A Beiersdorf spokeswoman in the U.S. noted that Nivea doesn’t sell skin-whitening products in North America, but global spokespeople didn’t comment. A Garnier spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for J&J said Neutrogena is ending its Fine Fairness line sold in Asia and the Middle East because the name "may be perceived in an unintended way as it represents fairness as better than your own unique skin tone. Grounded in the belief that healthy skin is beautiful skin, we made the decision to no longer sell the Fine Fairness product line."
Neutrogena's global portfolio includes products that even out natural skin tone, smooth skin texture and fade the look of dark spots that naturally occur over time, she said. “We do not sell products that ‘bleach’ the skin.”