Spurred by increased attention to racism and racial justice, brands across all industries have scrambled to do the right thing by Black consumers. Among these companies is Unilever, which recently pledged more than $1 million in donations to social justice organizations.
But the multinational conglomerate, which owns Dove, Palmolive, and L’Oreal, has made much, much more than that hawking skin whitening products to consumers of color around the globe. Now, BuzzFeed reports that Unilever has vowed to trike the words “Fair” and “Lovely” from its skin lightening products.
“We’re committed to a skin care portfolio that’s inclusive of all skin tones, celebrating the diversity of beauty,” the company told BuzzFeed in a statement. “That’s why we’re removing the words ‘fairness’, ‘whitening’ and ‘lightening’ from products, and changing the Fair & Lovely brand name.”
But there’s a catch: There are no plans to change the actual formulas of the products themselves, the company told BuzzFeed. The change is exclusively, and literally, in name only.
Beauty standards throughout the world are pegged to skin color; in many nonwhite countries, women and femmes, in particular, have internalized the idea that whiteness—or proximity to it—is part and parcel with being beautiful. As BuzzFeed notes, these whitening products are particularly popular in countries like India, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, and Ghana, where high demand has made them ubiquitous. In all of these countries, the thirst for lighter skin is pegged to white supremacy, but in some regions, this preference for light skin is also deeply rooted in classism and colonial history, where darker skin tones were a marker of low-paying, agricultural work.
Sunny Jain, president of beauty and personal care at Unilever, addressed the company’s culpability in reinforcing toxic, dangerous ideas about beauty and whiteness.
“We recognize that the use of the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right, and we want to address this,” Jain said. “As we’re evolving the way that we communicate the skin benefits of our products that deliver radiant and even tone skin, it’s also important to change the language we use.”
The focus on language elides the actual, material effects of the “Fair and Lovely” products. Unilever told BuzzFeed that their products didn’t use two of the most toxic and common skin lighteners, hydroquinone and bleach (hydroquinone has been banned by at least three African countries for the damage it causes to the body). But Jain’s statement also omits the stated promise of those products: focusing on the products’ ability to even skin tone and make it “radiant,” without mentioning their whitening effects on the skin. Here, she’s speaking in recognized beauty euphemisms: As the South China Morning Post reported earlier this year, brands will label “whitening” products as “lightening” or “brightening.”
Unilever’s move is as telling as it is disappointing: As long as colorism exists, the conglomerate still stands to make a lot of money. And if Unilever’s products successfully lighten skin, as they have pledged to do for years, then it can continue to capitalize on those sentiments, while publicly posturing that they would never propagate racism or white supremacy.
In this way, their recent move is also fitting: shifting your appearance but doing nothing to change the inside? Sounds about white.