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China’s Cosmetic Testing Ban: Better Late Than Never?

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By Hannah Newberry

Animal activists around the world have unified over social media to celebrate China, one of the world’s most notorious endorsers of animal testing. They have opted to ban the ‘post-market’ testing requirement for products that have already been imported, or created domestically. In a nutshell, this means that companies that already celebrate their ‘cruelty-free’ labelling in most western countries will no longer have to worry about sacrificing the authenticity of this if they wish to sell their products in China by subjecting their products to these requirements.

While I don’t doubt that this is a long-awaited victory, it’s a questionable one too. Firstly, this does not mean to say that a complete ban on animal testing is likely to follow. China by nature are incredibly rigid in terms of their product tests, and still hold animal testing as purposeful enough to endorse its supposed benefits against the tide of fluctuating moral values in western cultures – that are often the actual consumers of said products. To carry on operating in such opposition to blatant consumer interests is a risky move, so what exactly is the basis on which animal testing finds (slim) justification?

Many customers feel that they can’t commit to an organisation that endeavour into the Chinese market with the knowledge that it compromises their ‘absolute’ moral condemnation of animal testing. But from a business perspective, with changing perspectives on animal treatment (e.g. the rise of veganism, the ban on circus animals), it would’ve made sense for China to follow suit sooner. It’s wholly more beneficial to comply with the demands of your market than to expect companies to abstain from huge profit opportunities. Small businesses that have a chance of doubling or tripling their profits while being able to maintain their ‘cruelty free’ ideals would struggle to say no – gaining Instagram and Twitter followers from hashtagging phrases synonymous with moral abstention is good for publicity, but will seldom pay wages. Even though the profits made are still sky-high, companies like L’Oreal have suffered from changing ethical attitudes, which is exactly where brands like Barry M, Collection 2000 and Nyx have found their market gap.

China have deliberately ignored the gradually harmonising global move towards being ‘cruelty free’ up until now, which is a strange stance to take when you consider that science has continuously disagreed with animal testing serving any relevant purpose, especially in cosmetics, as it treats other beings as anthropomorphic to rebuff the idea that companies are willing to subscribe to such practices on the grounds of cost efficiency.

Their desire to research into ‘viable alternatives’ that included more cruelty-free methods is a true scapegoat – hasn’t this always been available given the ability of many companies under scrutiny to take the same steps many years before? China are more economically capable than most other nations and could have undergone this research and led the way with ethical cosmetics at the same time. States like Australia have had enough collective legislative encouragement to outright ban animal testing altogether, so it begs the question as to why a nation as developed, wealthy and proactive as China are satisfied being latecomers in one of the most revolutionary trends in the cosmetics market in the last ten years.

The FDA has never been able to deem animal testing in cosmetics as necessary for ‘safety’ reasons, but will permit it as a means of ‘substantiating’ the safety of finalised cosmetics. This goes to show that the reason cosmetic animal testing still finds support is that there is no singular body that wants to take responsibility for the rebuttal of an embedded practice that disfavours many wealthy bodies, such as Maybelline (who would likely be able to trump any animal rights organisation in a court proceeding due to the sheer resources and capital they hold, demonstrated in a similar capacity in the McLibel case which ended up being the longest course of litigation in English history – who has the time?). Would anyone really want to risk it, or is it easier being complicit?

The advancement of technology such as in-silico models (able to replicate the exact properties of various ingredients) and standardised Quantitative Risk Assessments for allergens supports the argument that China’s move is not one worthy of moral advocacy but instead a defeatist opt-out as any plausible grounds for justification; whether legally, socially or culturally, become continuously outdated.

China’s decision represents a stick in the mud against monotonous government practice, which is a type of regulation that’s often rather hard to budge and so worthy of commendation. But it’s important to remember that while this shows that we’re likely to see a decline in countries able to justify their endorsement of cosmetic animal testing anymore, that we need to consistently question the legal, cultural and scientific intricacies that endorse these outdated practices. An action as small as a tweet in support of a cruelty free company is not only indicative of our own individual morality, but actually serves a proactive purpose to give the government, cosmetic entities and legal bodies fewer legs to stand on for the next time the unwanted questions come knocking in search of effective social reform.

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