Why we said no to working with a MNC fairness product
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores, we at SEF put a call out on our social media sites for any teachers, education institutes, not for profit partners and career events looking for support with online multi-media tools to continue the delivery of education resources to students. Being a digital platform for over 80% of our program offerings, we wanted to make this an opportunity to share our knowledge, learnings and freeware tools to support our community at a time of need.
Why we do what we do
SEF is a not for profit with next to no revenue streams. Our leadership team along with our incredibly committed and passionate volunteers all do this for free, pooling their own money and working outside their paid jobs — putting in sometimes 20 hour weeks for SEF work to make education an accessible source for all and to make sure it is also available without prejudice and discrimination. We also want students to break the conventional chains of what a ‘career’ is or what ‘success’ looks like. For over hundreds of years, we have been made to conform to societal standards without room to celebrate and embrace individuality. We are committed to changing the lens on how we get students in Sri Lanka to think differently so they go on to create a more social and morally responsible society and treat all with equality and justice.
Why integrity matters
Sometime in March of this year, as a result of our call out we were approached by one of the biggest MNCs in Sri Lanka to support them with a graduate career event they were hoping to launch digitally given the curfew in place at the time. We thought this was a great opportunity to reach out to an incredible audience base we could not have dreamt of having access to, given the MNC’s social media reach. So we said yes to the partnership on the condition that it was branded at a high level parent company level and we were not going to charge a sponsorship fee or any other monetary gain — given this was the first such partnership for us, we didn’t want to profit from it.
However, after a very short round of negotiation we were told that the program was very specifically to promote a tool branded under their fairness/skin bleaching product. Prior to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in May/June, this was a little discussed topic in the country, but we as a team discussed this and what it means to align with a brand that aims to deform the natural appearance of a person in the guise of getting opportunities like the ‘perfect’ job, the ‘perfect’ boyfriend and society’s boxed view praises on how ‘beautiful’ they appear.
We asked long and hard is this what we want to stand for as SEF? The opportunity presented was almost a once in a life time opportunity but are we going to risk this for the sake of our values?
The answer was a resounding YES against.
Over 90% of SEF our team includes males. To paraphrase their response when we presented the dilemma — they said ‘we don’t want to be associated with brands that promote false beauty, we should learn to accept beauty in the way people act and treat others. We should not make women conform to unrealistic beauty standards, we should empower them to be comfortable in their own skin and embrace their true selves’ We as the management team were incredibly proud to hear these words. If all our efforts have been in vain, we can at least walk away with knowing we have managed to impact their thinking for a better world — where people are accepted for who they are not beaten into submission.
So we as a team took a stand and advised the MNC on our stance on embracing diversity and inclusion in all the work we do. Needless to stay they no longer wished to partner with us. There were no threats and no hostilities on their part — it was all very professional.
It took a while for us to pen this given the backlash that personalities who are well known in Sri Lanka had to endure as a result of speaking up against this product. We are not going to lie, it did scare us and what they would be capable of doing to SEF or the discrimination our volunteers will who may choose to take up employment with the MNC will face.
For us, speaking and standing up for what we believe in matters. We instil this in our volunteers everyday. Those volunteers that do not conform to our values or honesty and integrity are swiftly shown the door. So we definitely do not discriminate — we apply our standards equally to who we work with.
What we put in our bodies, topical or otherwise is each person’s choice. However, how these products are advertised to play on the insecurities that society has placed on us should be challenged. If these products were advertised for their true nature — we see no harm — because then consumers are free to pick products based on their true attributes and not it’s ‘aspirational’ qualities. We believe there needs to be a radical movement in society to reject and overhaul how products and services are marketed using our vulnerabilities as weaknesses.
It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. We are few.
But education is a powerful tool — often underestimated — however, when wielded right is a weapon against oppression, injustice and unfair practices.
We hope to be part of that revolution and you will join us too.