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In recent years, celebrities such as actress Natalie Portman and designer Stella McCartney have helped vegetarianism to rise above its associations with ugly sandals and a complete lack of humor. In Milan, where I’ve lived for five years, McCartney’s Falabella bags—100 percent polyester—are as common a sight as skinny jeans and nerd glasses. Sensing a marketing opportunity, many fashion and beauty companies have begun touting their green credentials.
Understanding beauty product packaging has posed a challenge for consumers: Which products have truly not been tested on animals? How can the caring consumer pick her lipstick? I decided to visit two major Italian retailers—the new department store Excelsior, owned by Gruppo Coin, and the historic beauty emporium Mazzolari—to find out.
Excelsior is located just off Corso Vittorio Emanuele on a small side street. At the store entrance, a pale green trolley of pastel-colored Ladurée macarons beckoned, while in the center a funky collection of design objects and electronics attracted a large number of shoppers. The fragrances and cosmetics were further back, housed both on the shelves of tall wooden bookcases and in more traditional display cases.
I approached a 20-something saleswoman and explained that I was looking for makeup that had not been tested on animals. A momentary look of panic flickered in her eyes. She pursed her bright red lips, but then, without missing a beat, scanned the cases around her and said, “Well, the reality is that all of our products should not have been tested on animals, because that’s illegal.”
She took me to a colleague who she said could help me further. The second saleswoman was sympathetic but uncertain. “Becca is one brand we have that is very natural,” she said, pulling out a drawer of compact cases. She squinted at the ingredients on a bottle. “Hmm, it doesn’t actually say how it was tested,” she continued, brow creasing.
I pulled a list from my bag: the Leaping Bunny Shopping Guide, distributed by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics and the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments. “This might help,” I said. “Maybe you can tell me which of these you carry.”
The clerk brightened and scanned the list, pen in hand. “I’ll mark anything we have, but also anything that I know is available in Milan,” she said with a smile, and checked several names.
L’Occitane was on the list, and the clerk said she would be happy to show me the brand’s products. “We carry many different creams from L’Occitane,” she said. “Unfortunately no makeup.”
I noticed a large Aveda counter nearby, with a leafy green wall. The clerk walked me there and handed me off to another colleague. “This young woman is looking for products that have not been tested on animals,” she explained. “Aveda doesn’t test on animals, right?”
“Absolutely not!” affirmed the Aveda saleswoman. She explained that the issue is deceptively simple: “It’s correct that the EU does not allow testing cosmetics on animals,” she said, “however, while many companies don’t test the final product on animals, they do use animal testing on single ingredients, so for someone looking to avoid animal-tested products it gets complicated.”
The sales associate showed me a concealer and two different foundations, one a cream and one a powder. After testing them, she decided I was definitely a “1,” in other words, as white as the snow that recently caught much of Europe by surprise. I decided to take the Inner Light concealer for 22.50 euros ($29.50).
For lips, on the advice of the saleswoman, I opted for two glossy Rehydrating Lip Glazes for 23 euros each ($30), one in Sunkissed Melon and one in Cherry Blossom, a bright red that didn’t look over-the-top. I also picked a 21 euro ($27.75) black mascara made with Iceland moss. The recycled- paper box clearly stated: “people-tested,” and an asterisk referred nit-picky consumers to the Aveda Web site for more information. The associate gave me free samples of shampoo and conditioner made with quinoa protein, as well as some brochures about Aveda.
Before heading to the check-out counter, I stopped by L’Occitane’s shelf of face and body products. Although L’Occitane was on my Leaping Bunny guide, its packaging was rather ambiguous, asserting “natural origin ingredients” and sometimes “organic ingredients” without any reference to how products were tested. I nevertheless decided to try the Extra Gentle Lavender Soap.
Mazzolari has a shop near Piazza San Babila, a bustling square in central Milan where fascist- era buildings coexist with the ancient San Babila church. The store began as a barber shop in 1888, but has long since evolved into a high-end perfume and cosmetics chain that prides itself on service. I entered the shop and walked down carpeted stairs to the main floor, which was a hive of activity.
I approached a young man in a suit and asked if he could help me with a cosmetics question. “Sorry,” he said with a smile. “I’m not the right person for cosmetics, but let me help you find someone.”
He led me to a colleague who listened to my request—this time, I asked for foundation that had not been tested on animals—and she said she preferred to refer me to still another colleague.
My designated sales assistant—dressed all in black, nails perfectly painted crimson, a row of gold bracelets on each hand—had an air of brisk, no-nonsense efficiency, and she spoke with authority. “Yes,” she said, upon hearing my request. “Please follow me.”
We arrived at a counter for Kanebo International. “This is what you’re looking for,” the saleswoman declared. “This brand doesn’t test on animals. It’s a premium, top-of-the-line Japanese brand and its products are incredible on the skin.”
I like light makeup, so we tested a Sensai liquid foundation. The SPF 15 foundation was called Fluid Finish Lasting Velvet, and came in an elegant bottle. Although its ingredients were clearly listed, I didn’t see any indication of how Kanebo tested them.
“Anything else?” the saleswoman asked me brightly. “Is there a powder to match?” I inquired. “Certainly,” she said, reaching for Cellular Performance Pressed Powder. The powder was silky, very fine and pleasant against my sensitive skin.
“I’ll try these,” I said, and we headed to the check- out counter. The total came to 103 euros ($135).
Back at home, I fact-checked my purchases. The Aveda and L’Occitane Web sites confirmed what the saleswomen at Excelsior had told me. Kanebo’s Web site was promising, but led only to a statement that the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in 2011 had not resulted in the contamination of Sensai cosmetics. I called the brand’s European operations office in Switzerland, where a representative confirmed the clerk’s info.
My shopping expedition revealed that some companies are actively responding to the desire for eco-friendly products, although the message could be clearer. Sometimes it really is hard to see the forest for the trees.
Galleria San Babila
This perfumery is a Milanese classic, with a huge array of brands for beauty-obsessed Italians.
Galleria del Corso, 4
The newest department store on Milan’s retail scene features a tightly edited assortment of lines.