Being friendly to animals is not enough, a company must respect its customers’ freedoms
Cosmetic brands often build their reputation on products’ quality, value and a cruelty-free production process. Recently, Lancôme and its parent company L’Oréal tarnished their image by cancelling a mini concert with singer Denise Ho.
The tension originated from a music collaboration between Lancôme and pro-democracy artist Denise Ho on June 19. As Denise Ho ardently supported the Umbrella Movement in 2014, the mini concert got on the nerves of some Chinese in Mainland China. The Global Times, a Chinese state-approved news organ, fired at Lancôme for hiring ‘Hong Kong poison’, siding with the Hong Kong independence movement.
Although the Umbrella Protest had nothing to do with the extreme independence movement, thousands of Mainland Chinese netizens poured out their resentment, arguing that: ‘Cosmetic brands should never embroil themselves in politics. Use your brain when choosing a spokesperson’. To contain the online backlash, Lancôme dropped Denise Ho due to a ‘potential safety reason’.
Amid strained Hong Kong-Chinese relations, the cancellation feels suspect to the people in Hong Kong, unleashing a wave of criticism. Denise Ho herself, seeing it as a form of self-censorship, expressed her ‘deep regrets’. Meanwhile, the citizens of Hong Kong called for a consumer boycott.
On the following day, angry protesters chanted, ‘Say no to self-censorship! Boycott Lancôme! Boycott L’Oréal!’ in front of Lancôme’s counter in downtown. The protest forced Lancôme to close down all its stores for one day.
This local incident strikes a responsive chord across the world. According to Denise Ho, the controversy challenges the world’s value: ‘Freedom, justice and equality are values that Hong Kong people cherish. If the defence of our rights and convictions causes us to be penalized, it goes beyond my personal case, it is our entire system of values that is targeted’.
Learning the news from a French expatriate, retired Philosophy teacher Béatrice Desgranges started a petition and demanded L’Oréal to overturn its decision. To Béatrice, her ‘duty is to stand up for freedom wherever freedom is violated’. The BBC, New York Times and other news media in France and Japan also reported on the controversy.This Lancôme scandal bothers petitioners who ‘cannot accept that Lancôme, in their way the ambassador of France — country of human rights — in Hong Kong, [would] sacrifice freedom of thought and expression to their commercial policy’.
The Lancôme controversy tests how a corporation juggles with profit-making and social responsibility. At a glance, L’Oréal, a French cosmetic giant, seems ethical by launching its ‘carbon-balanced’ ambition for 2020. However, public expectation extends beyond combating climate change. Respecting basic human rights is within the realm of core ethical principles. Everyone should be fairly dealt with over political, economic and social issues. Lancôme blundered by canning the mini concert to appease China. According to the Global Times, the intention was obvious: ‘Lancôme is explicitly mindful of the feeling of its customers in Mainland China. The reason cannot be simpler: the market in China is far bigger than that in Hong Kong’.
In other words, Lancôme chooses to censor an artist that displeases China. This provokes fury at home and abroad. People are outraged to see how a corporation gives up business ethics in favour of profits. As student activist Nathan Law put it: ‘To have a reputation, a brand must stay true to its beliefs. If not, it will only slide into a mere commercial brand’.
In dropping pro-democracy artist Denise Ho, Lancôme has jeopardised its freedom of expression. The people in Hong Kong are expecting an answer from L’Oréal. After all, big businesses should shoulder corporate social responsibility. To quote Denise Ho: ‘You must remember, your decision affects the whole society. A company’s self-censorship out of timidity will strike fear into the community, fomenting autocracy. Is that really the society we want?’