It’s looking ever more likely that ethically-minded beauty brands will be able to sell what’s known as ordinary cosmetics to China directly without the current requisite animal testing, even if an official announcement hasn’t been made there yet.
Over the past two weeks some European nations, led by France, have started laying the groundwork for their beauty companies to begin filing the paperwork possibly needed to launch ordinary cosmetics — such as shampoo, blush, mascara and fragrance — in the world’s second-largest and swiftly growing beauty market.
China is a country that until now many brands, particularly indies with a strong animal-welfare ethos, have eschewed, although it offers massive sales potential.
The onshore Chinese beauty market was estimated to reach 425 billion yuan, or $65.75 billion, as of 2019, according to a December 2020 Goldman Sachs report. The bank expects China’s domestic cosmetics spending will grow at a 12 percent compound annual growth rate between 2019 and 2025, to more than 1 trillion yuan.
Big beauty players are lauding the probable shift in China’s policy.
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“We are pleased with this significant progress for which we have worked with industry and public authorities to achieve,” said a L’Oréal spokeswoman.
At Unilever Prestige, Vasiliki Petrou, vice president and group chief executive officer, said: “We are continuing to sell cross-border e-commerce and feel optimistic about the changes due to happen in China, but are waiting for the full details to be published.”
Over the last few years, China has gradually been loosening its regulations on animal testing.
In 2014, China introduced the option for local manufacturers to replace mandatory animal tests of ordinary cosmetics with an in-house safety assessment. That incentivized some foreign beauty brands to establish production facilities there.
Updated Chinese cosmetics legislation, or CSAR, was adopted by the country’s State Council in June 2020, and a draft implementing law came out in August 2020.
“It foresees the possibility for imported ordinary cosmetics to waive the mandatory animal tests by an in-house safety assessment,” explained a representative from personal-care association Cosmetics Europe.
The draft legislation states that imported products from any country must have a certificate issued by the authorities of the exporting country declaring the product has been produced according to Good Manufacturing Practices.
A second draft of the legislation was released in November 2020 for public comment.
“Publication of the final implementing law is expected in the coming weeks,” said the Cosmetics Europe representative.
Special cosmetics, which include products for children or with active claims like SPF, brightening or anti-wrinkle, will not be affected by the anticipated changes and still be required to undergo animal testing.
Many EU nations — including Poland, Spain, Belgium and Austria — follow GMP for manufacturing and can issue GMP certificates for exports, but there is not currently an EU-wide legal basis for EU Member State authorities to issue GMP certificates that would be required by the Chinese authorities.
“Given the importance of the Chinese market for EU exporters, more and more EU Member States have started reviewing their policy and are working on a process that will allow them [to issue] GMP certificates in the future,” said the Cosmetics Europe representative. “Thanks to an intense collaboration between the industry and authorities, France has succeeded to newly develop a process for issuing GMP certificates, and it is hoped that more European countries, who do not have such processes in place yet, will follow soon.”
Yet Amanda Nordstrom, company liaison for PETA’s Global Beauty Without Bunnies program, cautioned: “It’s important to note, however, that these proposals are currently awaiting feedback from the Chinese government as to whether or not they will meet the requirements, and have not yet been approved.”
“There are still many unclear factors to how they will actually proceed with testing in China,” continued William Lau, vice president of brands at Ushopal Group, a beauty distributor that partners with brands including Natura Bissé and Chantecaille in China. “From an overall impact perspective, it should still have a one-to-two-year gap … purely due to all the brands coming into the market.”
Still, he doesn’t expect ordinary Western brands to start popping up left and right just because the regulatory environment is more open.
“It will take time for all the regulatory changes to be finalized and testing to be done for all these brands. The initial focus will be on larger corporations like L’Oréal,” continued Lau. “I think they will get the first wave of approvals for sure.”
The race to enter China should be on everywhere in the EU — and around the globe — at some point soon.
“It’s illegal to privilege one country over the other when it comes to the EU,” said Jean-Philippe Benoist, founder of China-based distribution company GED. “And then it will be the U.S., Japan and Korea. It’s the same. It’s breaking the rule of the WTO to privilege one series of countries [over] others.”
The hope is that those beauty brands that fulfill the criteria would no longer need to have their products tested on animals for eye and skin irritation in Chinese laboratories.
“We believe China is undergoing a major change in terms of cosmetics imports,” said Benoist. “You have to be cautious when it comes to announcements. It’s not official yet.”
And new policy doesn’t necessarily mean that tests will never be done on animals for ordinary cosmetics imported to China.
“Products may be subject to ‘post-market’ testing,” explained Allison Malmsten, China market analyst at Daxue Consulting, who said special products will still require animal testing.
Post-market testing is an unlikely event but one that could still occur, for example, in the case of a product recall.
“This means that brands for whom cruelty-free is central their image will likely not enter China,” she continued. “However, brands that had previously hesitated to enter the market may now do so while getting less criticism from animal-rights activities. The keyword here is ‘less,’ because brands are not completely off the hook from animal testing in China.”
Until now, some cruelty-free brands wanting to launch in China use cross-border e-commerce to forego pre-market testing, although there are per-shopper spending caps.
“Fenty Beauty, for example, has entered the Hong Kong and Macau market, where animal testing is not required, and can reach Mainland Chinese consumers through Xiaohongshu,” said Malmsten, referring to the social media and e-commerce platform.
Tmall Global sells the brands Drunk Elephant, Aveda, Lush, The Body Shop and Aesop to Mainland China. Some brick-and-mortar retailers there have in-store corners where consumers can try out Western brands and then order them online. Harmay, a Chinese beauty e-tailer from TaoBao, has also begun opening offline stores, such as a Beijing-based outlet, with cross-border products to sample.
Meanwhile, beauty brands like NYX, Elf Cosmetics, CoverGirl, BareMinerals and ColourPop have opted to remain outside of China. Urban Decay, for its part, in 2012 reversed its decision to sell products in the country.
In 2019, the U.S. led China as the world’s largest market for beauty. But if the EU is considered a region, it placed first, followed by the U.S. and China, according to a Cosmetics Europe report.
China’s domestic beauty market is expected to be 10-times bigger than the cross-border e-commerce market, according to Benoist.
That could be boosted by an influx of Western brick-and-mortar beauty retailers, as well as brands, into China.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see the landscape in a few years,” said Mette Knudsen, CEO and partner at foreign investment consulting firm Knudsen & CRC, based in Shanghai.
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