The beauty industry is rife with false claims, misinformation and confusing packaging — just tune into Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Lab for a taste.
And there’s money in it: the market for cruelty-free cosmetics, in particular, is estimated to reach $US10 billion in the next five years.
But amid the growing demand for ‘clean’, vegan, cruelty-free and sustainable beauty, some brands are deliberately misleading consumers.
Australian powerhouse Mecca recently caused a storm among its 620,000 followers after falsely declaring on Instagram that “all brands at Mecca are cruelty-free”.
Mecca stocks more than 100 domestic and international brands, including M.A.C Cosmetics, Clinique, Benefit, NARS, YSL, GlamGlow, Estee Lauder and Shiseido — all of which, according to PETA, use animal testing.
Mecca later backtracked — after a deluge of angry comments and a call-out by Instagram collective and beauty-industry watchdog Estee Laundry.
How do big brands get away with false claims?
Part of the answer lies in the Chinese market.
China is one of the last major countries that requires animal testing on all publicly sold cosmetics. Many well-known beauty brands don’t sell in China for this very reason.
However, the promise of increased profits in the rapidly expanding Chinese beauty market has been too tempting for some brands – some have quietly shrugged off their cruelty-free status to capitalise on the opportunity.
NARS boasted loudly about its cruelty-free staple until 2017 when it entered the Chinese market causing the hashtag #boycottnars to trend on Instagram.
Estee Lauder states on its website that it doesn’t test on animals, and does not ask third parties to test on its behalf. However, it later acknowledges that consumer laws in some countries do, in fact, require it to test on animals.
Elsewhere, vague definitions of what it means to be cruelty-free, combined with limited industry regulation, create loopholes that brands can use to mislead customers.
What makes a product cruelty-free?
One big misconception is that the terms “cruelty-free” and “vegan” can be used interchangeably. But there are crucial differences: cruelty-free products and their ingredients are not tested on animals, while vegan products must not contain animal or animal-derived products.
But there are no effective regulations in place to hold companies such as Mecca, NARS and Estee Lauder to account for making vague and misleading claims.
For buyers who want to learn more about the products they buy, informal, consumer-led watchdogs such as Estee Laundry (and its fashion industry equivalent Diet Prada) are a good start.
Speaking to digital media and entertainment website Refinery29, Estee Laundry highlighted the need for accountability in the industry: “People see the beauty industry as something that’s glamorous, so we wanted to show that there’s actually a dark side to it. We decided there needs to be an informal watchdog for the community, and a platform to provide a voice for others.”
Many brands stocked by Mecca also enter murky waters by claiming they are cruelty-free when they are owned by parent companies that continue to test on animals.
Urban Decay, BareMinerals and Drunk Elephant all claim to be cruelty-free but are owned by Shisedo – a brand that is known to use animal testing. Unilever also uses animal testing and is the parent company to Dermalogica, Kate Somerville, REN Clean Beauty, Tatcha and Hourglass who are all marketed as cruelty-free.
What brands at Mecca are actually cruelty-free?
The good news is that Mecca does stock plenty of brands that do not test on animals and are not owned by companies that do.
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