Cracking the Cruelty Free Challenge in China

Considering it has an estimated worth of around $33 billion, cutting yourself off from China’s cosmetics market isn’t exactly  a smart move, especially when you consider the rapid growth and development the country has seen in recent years. Unfortunately, for the companies who pride themselves on pushing forward a cruelty free initiative, refusing to sell their products within the country was largely considered the only option – now it seems that may not necessarily  be true…

The Chinese government began to implement a policy to permit “cross-border e-commerce” back in 2014. This would allow international brands to sell their products within the country in a much  easier way. As the normal rules don’t apply to e-commerce purchases, if the product they intended to sell was certified in the country that manufactured it, companies would no longer need to obey the strict animal testing regulations that had previously held them back. Chinese consumers can then buy these products after the company has shipped them through one of China’s free-trade zones, which have so far been established in over 10 cities.

Using digital strategies to legally avoid certain regulations has become quite a popular choice for many international cosmetic companies, including 100% Pure, Urban Decay, The Ordinary, Miranda Kerr’s Kora Organics, and Ceramiracle. For example, Urban Decay use a Chinese-language travel retail site to promote its products, allowing Chinese consumers to identify duty-free stores located abroad which sell the products they’re interested in. Customers are then redirected to an e-commerce site where they can order their items to later collect in-store whilst on their travels. Ceramiracle are a skincare brand that prides itself on being both cruelty free and vegetarian-friendly. They use pop-up stores and shopping events as a way to promote and sell their products, and the Chinese public receive unique codes to help complete their purchases on the WeChat e-commerce store.

Commenting on the process of implementing their digital strategies, Ceramiracle’s founder Eugene Hu said the following:

“The challenges are that there are no blueprints for this. You can’t go online and find out how to do this. You have to be there and find people to help you.”

The alternative, of course, is to continue to sell within physical stores in China and endure the inevitable backlash, and we all know where that  gets you in today’s modern world… MAC and NARS have both been under fire for submitting to China’s required animal testing regulations. In 2017, NARS faced an intimidating online boycott orchestrated by their own customers, a result of announcing that they would soon begin selling their products in the country. Unsurprisingly, it’s not just brands who risk experiencing the wrath of the public should they choose monetary gain over ethical standards, but also the celebrities who launch campaigns with them. Sia, an international superstar and a proud vegan who actively advocates for animal rights, was condemned for launching her charitable collaboration with MAC. Although the brand itself doesn’t test on animals, choosing to distribute products in China means that their products undergo mandatory testing anyway. Naturally, fans were unimpressed with Sia’s brief explanation for agreeing to the collaboration…

Sia commented:

“Like MAC, I believe makeup shouldn’t be tested on animals. MAC does not test on animals and is advocating change in countries like China where animal testing exists.”

In an attempt to show that they really do mean well, both MAC and NARS have publicly expressed their admiration and support of the China Food and Drug Administration, who proudly opened a non-animal testing lab in 2017. The Institute for In Vitro Sciences (IIVS) is currently looking into various methods of testing cosmetics that don’t rely on animals. Yes, it’s wonderful to see big brands advocating for change, but many members of the public feel that speaking out just isn’t enough. Actions speak louder than words, but to continue selling in a country that participates in the very thing you’re actively advocating against speaks volumes. For the brands who are adamant on maintaining their cruelty free status, however, digital shortcuts are a great solution to the challenges they face when selling within the Chinese market. These companies now have a unique way to be present in the market without compromising on their ideals or those of their consumers, and who wouldn’t prefer cosmetics without a side of guilt?

Author: Charmaine Musonza