In 2013 whilst researching for my film Beauty Is... I was horrified to discover that anyone could easily obtain illegal skin bleaching products over the internet.
To test whether my suspicions were true I placed an order with the online retail giant Amazon and within a couple of weeks I received a package through the post. The ominous parcel contained cosmetics that are banned from sale in the UK due to them containing hydroquinone, a cancer inducing chemical. If I had used these products on my skin I would have been, in effect, self-harming.
Surprised at the ease with which any parent or young person could acquire products that without prescription could technically be classified as illegal drugs, I made an official complaint to Amazon and simultaneously contacted the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in February 2013 asking them to act.
A month later the government’s MHRA claimed it was not its responsibility to address the mater and said “If you suspect that this product contains hydroquinone, please contact your local Trading Standards Office as they have responsibility for regulating such products.”
I contacted Hackney Trading Standards and published an Open letter on the Ligali website to Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos on 9 May 2013. Sadly, the response I received four months later from Brendan O' Sullivan of Amazon’s Executive Customer Relations was lacklustre merely thanking me ‘for bringing this matter to our attention.”
My original complaint to Bezos had called for Amazon to;
- Stop profiteering from malignant products that induce illness
- Stop profiteering from facilitating the supply and/or importation of illegal substances.
- To establish a policy that leads to the removal from sale of all items containing the banned substance hydroquinone on the UK/EU version of the Amazon website.
- To suspend traders from the Amazon Marketplace that fail to follow this directive
The letter highlighted the fact that some of the users of these types of products are children as young as four.
Amazons own publicly published Participation Agreement with its traders continues to support the remedies I was calling for.
As of August 2013 it states;
“3. International sales
In listing an item for sale internationally, the seller may also have to comply with laws of the country in which the buyer resides dealing with, among other things, prohibitions on the sale, distribution or offering for sale of specific items.”
Listed under section 4. Prohibited Items is the item “4.9 Illegal or prescription drugs;”
Amazons agreements also stipulate key “Seller's Obligations with respect to Listing Items”
This includes a clause that states
“1.1.2 Unless we have agreed with you in advance and in writing to the contrary... you represent and warrant to Amazon that: (a) the item is not one that would fall within any of the prohibited items described in clause A.4. and (b) the item is safe and bears any marking and labelling required under applicable law e.g. a "CE" mark.”
In short, Amazon does not have a contractual obligation to continue working with companies selling toxic products; it just chooses to do so.
Mass media support for skin bleaching promoters: Pop artist “Dencia” (Top), Dancehall artist and convicted murderer “Vybz Kartel” (Bottom)
Fortunately the officers at LB Hackney Trading Standards Department held a different position on the matter. They explained how their hands were tied due to the fact that Amazon was not directly responsible for the sale of the product.
Indeed Amazon.co.uk stipulates in its conditions of use and sale that;
“While Amazon as a platform provider helps facilitate transactions that are carried out on the Amazon platform, Amazon is neither the buyer nor the seller of the seller's items.”
Therefore because the goods I received were sold to me by a non-UK trader they were able to operate outside the law. This is a legal loophole that enables other market place sites like eBay to also sell products prohibited for sale in European territories.
A Principal Commercial Standards Officer explained;
“Normally unless the identity of the seller (principle) is not disclosed Trading Standards take action against the marketplace sellers themselves where they are breaching legislation. In this instance they are based in the US so this would be difficult.”
Despite this I believe that if politicians were put under public pressure to act like they were when so called ‘legal high’ drugs started to cause deaths then perhaps we would have a chance of making a permanent change leading to some good.
In the case of Amazon, Hackney Trading Standards were able to get a small victory. The Principal Commercial Standards Officer continued;
“I was able to see different products containing hydroquinone were still available on the site so I enquired what Amazon were intending to do about this issue. In response they removed these listings.”
Despite this success not one newspaper or broadcaster reported the story.
It was if no-one cared.
Tragically one year on the problem has returned.
In August 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban on over the counter sales of cosmetic products containing hydroquinone.
Today (6 April 2014) I was still able to order a tub of “Nadinola Skin Discoloration Fade Cream, Extra Strength Formula, 2.25 oz.” from the Amazon.co.uk website. Nowhere in the Product information did it refer to it containing hydroquinone.
The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and Trading Standards Departments across the UK do a great job in shutting down shops where they have evidence of hydroquinone based goods being sold under the counter. But no sooner do they shut one vendor down another opens up.
This is not a problem unique to the UK. Around the world many children are damaged by the use of skin bleaching products often applied to them by their parents/carers. Some of these products contain hydroquinone, others like ‘home grown’ brews use toxic materials like Mercury or Kojic acid. These children are being abused and the people selling, purchasing and applying these dangerous chemicals are committing a morally criminal act.
I believe that to solve this perpetual problem of supply and demand we require a sustained program of reparation that delivers empowering cultural education. The Beauty Is Campaign is one of many that I feel is needed to help eradicate the westernised ideals of beauty enslaving and fuelling the destructive behaviour of predominantly African and other non-european people.
In order to stop retailers capitalising from the use of legal loopholes permitting this illicit trade, we also require an ideological shift from politicians that recognises the moral duty they have to pass legislation that closes them.
Profit at any cost is wrong.
Sadly despite contacting several of the major news outlets including BBC Newsnight, Channel 4 News and the Guardian newspaper, none seem interested in the topic of helping redefine beauty ideals to reflect the world’s diversity.
Instead they seems to be more excited talking and promoting the harmful products of people like Denica and Vybz Kartel who actively encourage skin bleaching by producing a range of these toxic cosmetics in their name.
Perhaps when my overseas package arrives we will have the evidence needed to convince other concerned parents, carers and community workers that in order to really bring about change we need more than lip service to abolish this pernicious trade and industry across the world.
In the meanwhile please help by asking family and friends to sign the petition wherever you are in the world.
External LinksChange Petition – Make the Skin Bleaching of Children IllegalAmazon Participation AgreementAmazon.co.uk Conditions of Use and Sale
Director Toyin Agbetu’s film BEAUTY IS promotes a holistic definition of what it means to be beautiful
An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos: Stop Selling Bleaching Creams
Ligali is not responsible for the content of third party sites
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