Kanebo recall illustrates built-in resilience of cosmetics industry

July 8th, 2013 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

White is might: The Sex and the City cast plug their second movie in Tokyo, 2010

White is might: The Sex and the City cast plug their second movie in Tokyo, 2010

Last week, cosmetics giant Kanebo, along with two subsidiaries, announced it was recalling 54 skincare products that are believed to cause unsightly blotches. The merchandise under scrutiny contains an active whitening ingredient called Rhododenol that the company first started marketing in 2008, and it estimates that some 250,000 women in Japan alone use it on a regular basis. Since 2008, 4.36 million units have been shipped and probably about 450,000 may still be in use, including in foreign countries like Thailand and Taiwan. The Philippines, in fact, reacted to the recall by banning all Kanebo products that contained Rhododenol.

On the surface, the size of the problem sounds formidable, since Kanebo will lose some ¥5 billion on account of the recall. Asahi Shimbun reports that the company has not released sales figures for the disputed line of products, but it is believed Kanebo’s annual revenues for skin whitening agents is around ¥190 billion. Consequently, the company is not losing that much, and if one wanted to make a gambling analogy, it obviously pays to market substances that aren’t guaranteed in the long run since so much money can be made in the short run. It all depends on what people want and how badly they want it.

Women’s cosmetics, and whitening products in particular, are no-lose propositions in Japan. The main market right now is middle aged consumers, who, according to a recent article in Aera, buy almost any anti-aging product that goes on the market. This practice is now called keshohin kurujingu, or “makeup cruising.” The article profiles several women, housewives and working women, all in their 40s and 50s, who spend an average of ¥50,000 a month on cosmetics.

The pattern seems to be the same. While in their 20s and 30s they think of “maintaining beauty” from a health perspective. If they eat right and watch their weight, they will naturally remain youthful. But once the age spots and wrinkles start appearing they go all out to maintain their exteriors with creams, lotions and the like, and once a woman enters into this mindset there seems to be no limit: regular hair coloring, nail salons, expensive bottled beverages, anything that might turn back the hands of time. The release of the “Sex and the City” movie in 2008, with its focus on beautiful middle aged New Yorkers who spend freely on clothing and appearance, was a boon for the cosmetics industry, especially in Japan.

Another neoligism related to this development is bimajo  (“beautiful witch”), a reference to the somewhat unearthly appearance of women who rely on makeup to maintain their youthful appeal, with whitening products the main component. Of course, the guru of this movement was the late cosmetics magnate Sonoko Suzuki, whose skin was so white she was often referred to as a ghost. Though Suzuki’s pale visage was considered bizarre by many, middle-aged and older women bought her products religiously. And according to Aera, this trend crosses class lines: Lower middle class women spend almost as much as do upper class women.

So in 2008 when Kanebo came out with its new whitening formula it knew it had nothing to lose, and while it would be irresponsible to say that the company was using Japan’s middle aged female population as guinea pigs to find out how well Rhododenol worked, the revenues they earned for the past five years make any similar risk worth it for the future. After all, there is no evidence that anyone got physically ill from the recalled products, and there have been no lawsuits. Since nobody lives forever, there’s only so much you can expect from a cosmetic.

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