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China Opens Wider Path for Cruelty-Free Beauty

A pilot scheme now allows products to be physically retailed in the country without losing their cruelty-free Leaping Bunny certification.

SHANGHAI — When products from U.K.-based brand Bulldog Skincare arrived at Watsons’ pharmacy stores in Shanghai at the end of November, it may not have looked much different from all the other grooming products sitting beside it on the shelf. But for the cruelty-free community, this was a big and proud win.

With the launch, the men’s skin-care line became the first brand to retain its Leaping Bunny certification, a stamp of approval from the animal welfare group Cruelty Free International, while physically retailing in Mainland China, a country that has heavily relied on animal testing methods to ensure safety in cosmetics.

This was thanks to a pilot program from CFI and Knudsen & CRC, a regulatory compliance company, which successfully lobbied for a shift in how the Chinese government regulates cosmetics.

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“In the highly unlikely event of any safety concerns, the authorities have agreed that the companies will be able to recall products rather than face animal tests,” explained a Cruelty Free International spokesperson.

Cruelty-free beauty brands have always been challenged in accessing Mainland China, the world’s second-largest cosmetics market after the U.S., and one of the fastest growing in the world.

Companies have used workarounds like cross-border e-commerce, since animal testing is only required for brands that physically retail in the country, but the commercial value of that channel is handicapped by cross-border spending limits. Or, some brands which are cruelty-free-minded, took to manufacturing its products within China and receiving classification as a domestic brand, allowing it to skip premarket animal testing. For brands like Nudestix, which opted for this route, this more or less constituted cruelty-free.

However, that method still left room that products could be subject to post-market testing, meaning that products could be taken off shelves and tested such as in the case of a safety recall. While recognized to be rare, the risk meant those brands didn’t meet the cruelty-free standard groups like CFI and PETA hold.

This pilot changes that. Bulldog is the first to reach the Mainland Chinese market while certified as a Leaping Bunny brand, but five others are also involved in the project, including fellow British label Neal’s Yard Remedies, the Croatian line Azena, face masks brand Seventh Heaven, as well as Subtle Energes and Brighter Beauty. They are expected to roll out in Mainland China soon, too.

“As a brand, we have always challenged ourselves to make ethical choices and we made a decision long ago that we would never compromise our stance on animal testing, no matter the size of any potential market,” said Bulldog cofounder Simon Duffy, adding that, “All in all, it took us around 16 months from the start of the project to having our products ready to go on sale in physical stores in China.”

While the pilot is only applicable to nonspecial-use cosmetics — products without active claims such as SPF or antiacne — it significantly opens up choices to the Chinese consumer and a wider awareness about cruelty-free beauty. It’s a conversation that is nascent, but one that is expected to significantly speed up after regulatory changes like these.

“I would have to say that cruelty-free is not the number-one concern for a Chinese beauty customer right now,” said Sonalie Figueiras, founder and editor in chief of Green Queen, the Hong Kong-based eco and wellness platform. “We haven’t seen huge campaigns about what cruelty-free beauty means.”

That being said, Figueiras pointed to data shared by Jill Robinson, the founder of Animals Asia, who said there are now 150 animal rights charities that operate in Mainland China, compared to the Eighties when there was just one such group.

“There is a lot of hope for a change from consumers because the animal rights organizations are the ones that really campaign for cruelty-free and educate the public,” Figueiras said. “Once China says you can sell here, you can produce in China, you don’t have to test on animals — that’s when the NGOs will step in and drive the public awareness campaigns.”

Related: Navigating Cruelty Free Beauty in China >>