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Cruel cosmetics and consumer choice: what’s the story?

Patrick Haid, a human rights lawyer with a passionate interest in animal rights, wonders whether recent developments in testing cosmetics on animals are taking us backwards. He offers readers practical advice on how to make better purchasing decisions.

The world’s first Cruelty to Animals Act became law in the UK in 1876, and Victoria was the first Australian state to follow suit in 1883. These laws sought to constrain certain scientific practices to bring them in line with community expectations. Since this time animal interests have scored a number of political victories, from the banning of bloodsports to anti-cruelty legislation in the areas of research and hunting.

Consumer sentiment has also driven reforms advancing the ethical treatment of animals. An anti-factory farming campaign recently won assurances from Australia’s two big supermarkets that they would phase out less ethical supply methods, including cage eggs and sow stall pork.


Rabbit (Northrup Photography)

But the history of animal welfare development is not all positive, and there are many cases where backwards steps have been taken, particularly when financial interests are a factor. One area with a mixed history and a troubling present, is cosmetic testing.

At the end of World War Two, the Draize Test (named for its inventor John H. Draize) became industry standard in the cosmetics business. This test involved the application of a substance to the eye or skin of a constrained animal, usually a rabbit, to see what damage it inflicted over a period of time. Its use was drastically reduced in the 1980s after a successful public awareness campaign targeted industry leaders, and put the issue onto the front pages of reputable publications. Companies like Revlon and Avon began to make their ethical stance part of their sales pitch.

Today, a number of big cosmetics producers – including L’Oreal and Proctor & Gamble – have abandoned what had previously been ethical articles of faith to gain access to emerging markets in countries where animal testing is legally required. This has meant that products developed for western markets are now being provided for testing on animals in countries like China. Does the fact that the testing happens offshore, or after the product has been developed, change the ethics of this behavior?

A recent article by consumer group CHOICE examined the issue of animal testing in Australia and found that a number of cosmetics companies made it difficult for consumers to understand their position on testing. For example, certain companies claimed to be ‘against animal testing’ and only tested items ‘where required by law’. In many cases, this involved companies knowingly providing samples of their products for testing on animals overseas. On the other hand as the article points out, other companies such as The Body Shop, Lush Cosmetics and Paul Mitchell have chosen not to sell into China while the law is in conflict with their ethics.

While the re-engagement in animal testing by market leaders is disappointing, there is some cause to be optimistic about the fuTesting cosmetics on rabbitsture. India, Israel, and the European Union have recently imposed bans on the testing of cosmetics on animals, and the latter two have also banned the sale of items tested on animals anywhere in the world. In essence this means that companies will need to make a choice between these markets and China. People for the ethical treatment of animals is working with the Chinese government to find an alternative to animal testing that is acceptable to the authorities, and a US researchers have developed a human skin model that is undergoing advanced rounds of testing in Europe. Closer to home the phasing out of cosmetic testing on animals became a campaign issue in the recent federal election, and consumer awareness is rising.  As the events of the 1980s indicate, this is a powerful thing in an industry sensitive to consumer sentiment.

What can I do?

A number of products are labeled cruelty free, but according to Choice, not all of these labels are created equal.

However, several independent third parties certify products as not having been tested on animals. These include Choose Cruelty Free, Animals Australia, Leaping Bunny, and PETA.

Below are the logos to look out for, courtesy of CHOICE.Not all bunnies are created equal


Consumers can access the CHOICE report here, and keep up to date with local and international developments via organisations like Cruelty-Free International. Unleashed Australia also has a buying guide for consumers.

So where can you find cruelty free cosmetics products?

A quick search comes up with these two stores worth checking out. Are you aware of any others? Use our suggestion form to let us know.

Cruelty Free Shop – online and at 83 Glebe Point Road, Glebe (Sydney).

Vegan beauty – online


Patrick Haid received a PhD in history from UNSW and works at the Australian Human Rights Commission. This article represents the personal views  of the author and not necessarily those of his employer.

One Response to Cruel cosmetics and consumer choice: what’s the story?

  1. Nerissa October 17, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    I heard that all of Europe has banned animal testing for cosmetics…Peta is working hard to get it banned in every country. It is so unneccessary and horrible.
    Thanks for caring. I sell all cruelty free products and the Australian Ethical guide to shopping helps in this arena too.

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