Adventures in Ethics and Science

Yesterday I worked my way through the hundred’s of comments on PZ’s I am Pro-Test post. One theme that kept cropping up was that a great deal of animal testing is unnecessary, and that informed and attentive consumers should be able to kill the demand for it.

I thought, therefore, that it would be worth returning to a question I talked about a while ago, in a single paragraph of a fairly lengthy DVD review:

“Why do animal tests continue when cruelty-free products are available?”


In the U.S., federal law requires that cosmetics and pharmaceutical drugs be tested in animals for safety and efficacy before you can expose humans to them.

So, what’s up with “cruelty free” labeling?

A label on your shampoo or handsoap that says “no animal testing” does not mean that the substances in the bottle were not tested on animals. They were. They were required by law to be so tested. What the label indicates is that someone else did the testing.

While the company selling the product didn’t test the substances on animals in their own facilities, there’s a good chance that they paid another company to do the animal testing. The other possibility is that the substances were tested on animals long ago, by another company.

To the extent that you regard animal testing of drugs and cosmetics as cruel, “cruelty free” products still depend on cruelty. It’s just a question of which corporate entity has conducted the testing, and which one is claiming to have clean hands while helping itself to the results of those tests (although the “no animal testing” company may well have commissioned those animal tests).

Also, it means you’ll probably get to pay more for the product than if it didn’t have the “cruelty free” label.

Comments

  1. #1 Robyne
    April 25, 2009

    The other possibility is that the substances were tested on animals long ago, by another company.

    Among my friends, the prevailing thought is that yes, these products were tested on animals once upon a time, but they no longer need to be. If we have so many cosmetic options that have been through the testing process. there’s no need to invent more that will need testing. I agree with this sentiment, although partly for a different reason, which is that we have too many options already – why on earth do we need 73 varieties of toothpaste to choose from? But the cruelty-free mindset is not all or nothing. It’s that any time testing is avoided is a plus. So I don’t necessarily think it’s a misguided philosophy.

    Of course, this doesn’t hold up for advances in medical products. But we really don’t need new varieties of OTC shampoo.

  2. #2 Jim Thomerson
    April 25, 2009

    “No animal testing” means, at best, that the animals used to test the product are the humans who use it. In this case, political correctness suggests we avoid talking about testing the product on “dumb animals”.

  3. #3 becca
    April 25, 2009

    So logically… if everybody only bought ‘cruelty free’ products, we’d have to stop making new cosmetics. Works for me.

  4. #4 Cleveland
    April 25, 2009

    What Janet said AND what Robyne said. Although I am firmly in support of safety testing* of products, when it comes to cosmetics, I fail to find justification in a bazillion new ingredients for toothpastes, shampoos, etc. when we have so many.

    *distinct from animal research, let us never forget. the justifications are related but quite different.

  5. #5 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 25, 2009

    So logically… if everybody only bought ‘cruelty free’ products, we’d have to stop making new cosmetics.

    Not necessarily, since “cruelty free” can just as easily mean “there was new animal testing, but we contracted it out to someone else.”

    It’s not a very transparent labeling scheme.

  6. #6 jrshipley
    April 25, 2009

    I think everyone should be able to agree that inflicting painful testing on animals for purely cosmetic products is something that should simply be outlawed. If there’s a greater human good involved then testing may be justifiable. But only the vainest among us would think that a new kind of eyeliner is a greater good. Forget labeling. Just make it illegal.

  7. #7 Rob W
    April 25, 2009

    This has been sort of already pointed out, but simply:
    The flawed labeling scheme doesn’t invalidate the concept behind it.

    We need a better (and legally-enforced) labeling scheme that is more transparent. Why just throw your hands up, when you could at least try to point towards a fix?

    We (as consumers) should be helped to make more informed choices, and hopefully reduce unnecessary testing. I think you must agree that if you can choose between supporting the “new & improved!” product whose development required extensive testing of scores of new chemicals vs. the product that could rely on historical test data, there’s an ethical argument for choosing the latter.

    Here’s the concept of a law, if I could write it:
    * Cosmetics companies should publish (on their website is fine, if not in product packaging) the “bibliography” of the test results they submitted to the government to get approval for selling each product.
    * Each product should carry an “animal cruelty contributor” indicator, say on a color system from green to red.
    * The indicator could be calculated on number of tests required, and recentness of tests. So a lot of recent tests will get you a bright red; a handful of tests decades old could get you a green. I’m not sure what this dataset looks like… there might be other obvious points to include.

    I’ll tack on as well that well-designed medical research using animals is a very different question — there’s a weight on the other side of the ethical scale! — but we should be all taking a harder look at purely consumption-driven animal testing.

  8. #8 Preston
    April 25, 2009

    Yeah, basically this post points out an interesting and little-known fact, but it doesn’t do much to undermine support for cruelty-free products. At best, we ought to encourage a more transparent labeling process. Not just throw our hands in the air (as one poster put it).

  9. #9 Arj
    April 26, 2009

    Actually there are cruelty-free products that have never been tested, because the ingredients have been used safely for so many millenia they don’t require testing.
    There are also other products that while they require some form of testing, do not require it be done on live animals.

  10. #10 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 26, 2009

    Arj, can you point us towards some particular examples of products with newish ingredients that don’t require animal testing?

    For the record, I am always in favor or greater transparency in labeling, to allow consumers to make choices about the things that matter to them. I quite like Rob W’s color-coded labeling scheme.

  11. #11 becca
    April 28, 2009

    So do they contract it out to other companies that don’t sell cosmetics then?
    Because if everybody were buying ‘cruelty free’ then no cosmetics company would do the testing.

    In any event, I’ll grant the labeling scheme is asinine. But it may be better than nothing.
    But then, I often buy “organic” products, if I can’t find something locally supplied, because I hope that on average the companies will be more responsible about environmental issues (this is assuming no additional info is available in my supermarket aisle). If I could somehow select products that specifically used fewer acres per calorie, or less pollution, I’d pick those. All else being equal, I’d even prefer GMO products, just out of my intrinsic contrary nature.

  12. #12 DrugMonkey
    August 27, 2009
  13. #13 Eva
    January 4, 2010

    So, does this also imply that many products that *don’t* have a cruelty-free label also didn’t recently test on animals? I mean, are there *actually* companies smearing mascara on bunnies (or whatever product/animal combination) or are they *all* relying on the same old data saying that the ingredients are safe, and some call that “cruelty free” while others don’t put anything on the label?

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