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Leading legislation: how major brands are taking on the EU over animal testing

Consumers overwhelmingly oppose animal testing, yet regulators are proposing to reverse cruelty-free legislation/Image via Dove

Prohibiting the testing of cosmetics and their ingredients on animals is an issue close to the hearts of many consumers, yet proposals from the European Chemicals Agency would see a years-long ban on products tested on animals reversed.

Major brands in the industry including Dove and The Body Shop have joined forces with leading animal protection groups to call on the EU to save cruelty-free testing – but can this unprecedented example of market competitors uniting to fight legislation enact change before it’s too late?

After decades of campaigning by consumers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) alike, and a series of bans that prohibit the testing of cosmetics and their ingredients on animals, the EU finally outlawed the sale of cosmetics that had undergone animal testing in 2013. This policy has gone on to become the gold standard for similar legislation around the world. However, the ban is now under threat following new calls from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is concerned over the impact of certain chemicals used for many years in consumer products on the safety of factory workers and the environment – and would require those same chemicals previously deemed safe by non-animal tested methods to be re-tested on animals.

In an unprecedented move by competitor brands, Unilever’s 27 Peta-approved brands including Tresemme, Simple and Dove have joined forces with purpose-lead brand The Body Shop alongside Cruelty Free Europe, Peta and the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments to launch a European Citizen’s Initiative – calling on the European Commission to protect its ban on animal testing.

Changing attitudes

Kerry Postlewhite is director of public affairs at Cruelty Free International. She calls the joint effort by consumer brands on the subject “groundbreaking.”

She says: “For companies to come together on a campaign such as this is unusual and marks a sea-change since we fought the brands over animal testing initially.

“At the time, I worked with the member of the European Parliament who was leading on the seventh amendment to the cosmetics industry regulation that saw the initial ban, so I saw firsthand the opposition that came from the majority of the industry.

“Luckily they didn’t succeed and since then the industry has responded in a very positive way by investing large amounts of money in the development of non-animal methods to demonstrate the safety of their products.”

Postlewhite believes that the determination of the industry to preserve the ban on animal testing is as a result of developments in science that provide alternative methods, as well as the strengthening of public opinion on the matter.

“There are many brands, like The Body Shop – who we have worked with for over 20 years – that have opposition to animal cruelty built into their DNA. But now the majority of consumers do want cruelty-free cosmetics, and we need to protect and strengthen the testing bans in cosmetics regulation, as well as look at the new chemicals used for sustainability purposes and the impact that might have on animal testing.”

Power in numbers

Christopher Davis is the international director of corporate social responsibility and campaigns at The Body Shop. He says that the brand decided to join forces with NGOs such as Cruelty Free Europe and competitor brands including Dove “because this is a crisis that affects the whole industry, and it isn’t the time to be going at it alone.”

He says: “Unless we mobilize in great numbers now, we are going to see animals killed for cosmetics once again. We hope that this example of collaboration for the greater good will be followed by other brands, though it seems that many are still hesitant to speak out against regulators.”

When it comes to Unilever’s position on animal testing, Dr Julia Fentem, head of Unilever’s Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre, says that as a consumer-facing company, Unilever’s cruelty-free stance has been developed in response to customer demand.

“As with Dove and all our other brands with Peta, it wasn’t so linked to regulation but a consumer context to begin with. Consumers wanted to trust that the products they were buying were actually cruelty-free, which led to us seeking NGO certification.”

Backed by science

Fentem explains that Unilever has had a long-standing history in the development of non-animal testing methods, but that in the last 15 years “the availability of human cells and tissue, and computational modelling means that many non-animal testing tools generate very detailed scientific information that better protect consumers and the environment.”

The EU’s underlying reasoning for re-instating animal testing is due to the relationship between cosmetic testing regulation and chemical testing regulation over the safety of the consumer – but also for environmental and worker safety.

Fentem says Unilever’s stance is that the same tests used by the cosmetics regulators to deem certain products safe for market can be used to deem the chemicals safe to be handled by workers – a view that is also taken by the NGOs.

Postlewhite says: “If an animal-free testing method demonstrates safety for the consumer, then the same tests can be used to demonstrate safety for the worker. Health and safety legislation at work that is there to protect the rights of workers is essential, but we feel strongly that these tests can be used for both purposes.

“And frankly, if there is an ingredient contained in a cosmetic that the authorities believe necessitates an animal test, then that ingredient should simply not be used in a cosmetic rather than an animal test being triggered.”

A personal issue

All parties agree that the issue of cruelty-free cosmetic testing is so essential because of the strongly-held beliefs of so many consumers.

Postlewhite states that Cruelty Free International’s regular consumer polls frequently see upwards of 80% of consumers opposing animal testing, and Davis says that “cosmetics are inherently personal, and people feel very passionately that they do not want to put something on their skin that has facilitated harm to another living being.”

Yet this issue is also one that could impact the UK, as following Brexit the laws that dictate chemical regulation in the EU are now no longer applicable to Britain, and there are now concerns that the Home Office will follow suit in withdrawing the ban if the EU’s campaign were to be successful.

The clock is now ticking as a verdict on the proposals draws ever nearer, and the European Citizens Initiative launched by the brands and NGO’s alliance requires 1 million signatures by August 2022 in order to resist the ban.

There is no doubt that when it comes to the regulation of chemicals, worker and consumer safety are imperative. Yet the issue of cruelty-free cosmetics testing is a humanitarian one, and it is taking the mobilization of corporate power to defend animal welfare on behalf of consumers. EU citizens who wish to join the European Citizen’s Initiative to oppose animal testing can do so here.

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