Unilever internationally and Hindustan Lever in the subcontinent have dropped “fair” from Fair & Lovely after they accepted that the brand is not a bleaching product. The singular idea of beauty it propagates has come under severe criticism after the Black Lives Matter movement and the sadistic murder of George Floyd, which renewed the conversation on negative stereotypes. Nivea sells skin-lightening products across West Asia, Nigeria, Ghana and India and so does L’Oréal, through its Garnier brand. In this context, is Unilever’s rebranding decision just a skin deep marketing strategy?
Faux solidarity, hijacked identities:
If the common adage of marketing is that the customer is king, then modern-day corporations are king-makers. They live and advance a utopian kingdom where the market dictates trends, patterns, choices, preferences and lifestyle options. The paternal disciplining that is done through careful surveillance of buyer behaviour and the maternal warmth of feel-good items on sale conditions users—to use the standard appeasement lingo of corporations—to be their “brand patrons”, “esteemed clientele”, “business partners” and “valued customers”. This makes the corporations a double bind: internally, they influence the lives of customers while externally, among the clique of global corporations, they appear sensitive and concerned. This is why being a “good corporate citizen” is a myth, but to unmask this ambiguity is an increasingly arduous task.
The historical injustice of corporate manipulation is evident in the history of the USA, where after the declaration of independence in 1776 the colonies were founded by corporations. This led to the state taking a back seat and letting capitalism take root across public services such as water, electricity, banking and food distribution. Naturally, monopoly became the buzzword and corporate personhood quickly turned into corporate statehood. This did not change even after the end of colonialism.
The authoritative stand corporations take in India, through which they use their innovations to influence populations, must also be viewed through the enigma of the colonial understanding of White versus Brown. Lord Macaulay, who is credited with bringing English education to India, was clear about what the colonial apparatus sought: work like the British, talk like the British but remain Indian. This imperialist tendency was not constructed for the sake of administrative conveniences but was entrenched in the mission to “civilise” the third world and thereby advance colonial continuity.
It hardly needs to be reiterated that just like in the USA, the multinational East India Company captured India through a corporate set-up. What we are witnessing today is the rising empire of a transnational capitalist class that controls everything we consume across borders through global supply chains. The saving grace is the friendlier face of capitalism or, in other words, we are witnesses to corporate social responsibility programs organised by companies that want to make peace with people and the environment.
The elitism of these companies surpasses the caste-class barriers that seek to foster social solidarity. For instance, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are particular about delaying funds meant for developing or least-developed countries where, they say, homophobia is prevalent. As Rahul Rao, a senior lecturer in politics at SOAS, argues, this development-versus-social-moral justification is a disguised version of preaching civilisational norms to those who live in “darkness”, just as Ambedkar, admittedly perturbingly, had compared the “aborigines” with “savages” who would remain in “congenital stupidity” until the Hindus stepped up to “civilise” them. Likewise, the aborigines in Australia were denied their natural right to ownership of property since the occupation of Captain Cook in 1778 because the Western notion of “civilised people” did not include tribals. The historical owners remained landless until 1992, when the courts corrected this injustice and restored their land titles, after 200 years of discrimination and apartheid in their native lands.
The ambit of this article is not a discourse on colonial discrimination but to re-look at corporations and the agenda-setting methods they use to instil their own notions of acceptable and desirable identity. The racial discrimination that we see in Fair & Lovely must be put in this context too. The much-coveted whiteness of skin colour is advocated through a syndicate of movies, advertisements and fashion ambassadors. More often than we wish to accept, they are found in the glamour industry of ramp walks and brand loyalties through which body hatred and image-consciousness are worshipped.
The question is, why are corporations suddenly becoming humane? What is it that is making them conscious? Why are companies becoming activist in nature? Is being good the new normal? Are companies finally looking inwards and soul searching?
Dr Margaret Chan, the former Director General of World Health Organization stated that the top pharmaceutical companies are headquartered in the United States and Europe but have operations across the globe. Similarly, the market for women’s sanitary products is dominated by Proctor and Gamble (Whisper) and Johnson and Johnson (Stayfree). However, since sanitary napkins are classified as “medical products”, companies are not required by law to disclose what goes into the making of product packs. That leaves their customers to only believe in the external appearance of fancy packaging while making their “choice”.
In another instance, when the Supreme Court decriminalised section 377 in 2018, brands rushed in to capitalise on rainbow pride. This solidarity lasted for only a short duration and did not result in either job creation or safer workspaces for the queer community. This form of pink-washing is globally being exposed as a propaganda strategy to project a progressive image while concealing oppressive rules against LGBTQIA+ rights.
Legal optimism of consumer protection:
The Consumer Protection Act, 2019 is a great step forward to address misleading advertisements and unfair trade practices. With the creation of a Central Consumer Protection Authority and an online portal to register complaints, called Grievances Against Misleading Advertisements (GAMA), by the Department of Consumer Affairs, the hope is that consumers will get faster legal redress. But when might is right, it is difficult for the less privileged duped by fake brand promises to fight against established-entitled corporate behemoths.
As culturally entrenched beauty products such as Fair & Lovely have become an integral part of life, another attendant risk it has posed has been that more and more people now seek to escape into a world of digital acceptance. To be insta-worthy is the new paradigm in a digital society. The fashion magazine Vogue has articulated dense rules on how one should post a picture on Instagram, which is controlled by Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Snapchat. Seeking online approval has led to a rise in the selfie culture, which is now a declared mental disorder. Any image that does not get the desired “likes” leads to multiple trials and errors, the use of myriad digital filters and feature-enhancers, until one “fits in”. The chronic addiction to selfies is aggravated by cosmetic product companies that routinely engage in selfie contests.
As global corporations continue to be besotted with the business and human rights framework as endorsed by Prof John Ruggie, a teacher at Harvard Kennedy school who was asked by the United Nations to develop a framework to tackle corporate excess. Since corporations never want to be held liable for their injustices across the globe, a legally-binding treaty was ruled out. The outcome was “guiding principles” for states to protect corporate investments and companies to respect human rights. Transparency and accountability seem to be at a crossroads while power and authority take precedence over equality and justice.
Corporate social responsibility reporting has aligned with general financial reporting in companies, so the social good is now equal to financial good. With this basic misunderstanding of how to define what is humane, the idea of being a good corporate citizen is simply a misnomer. And this isn’t fair.
The author is assistant professor, St Joseph’s College of Law, Bangalore. The views are personal.