January 1997
Drug and Cosmetic Industry

Vivisecting the Anti-Vivisectionist Movement

by Jon Entine

Animal rights news conferences are a familiar spectacle, and this one in New York recently was no different. Sponsored by the Doris Day Animal League, and supported by ten animal rights groups, it was purportedly intended to promote a new standard to limit animal testing of cosmetics. A less obvious agenda was to fill the coffers of animal rights organizations and pump sales of New Age cosmetic firms.

After the announcement, five companies led by Tom’s of Maine toothpaste and The Body Shop cosmetic company marched to the front of the room to endorse the day’s agenda. No surprise that the voluntary standards, which call for companies to end the use of ingredients tested on animals after a fixed cut-off date – are eerily identical to these same companies marketing campaigns. As reward for courageous defiance of the heartless cruelty of their competitors, each was given a small crystal rabbit.

The rabbit, usually portrayed with acid-burned eyes, has become the symbol of animal activism. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals hold Hollywood fund-raisers decorated with huge blow-ups of fluffy white bunny rabbits with swollen eyes. Then they ask for donations. The only thing missing from this spectacle is the truth and respect for reasoned debate.

Perhaps it’s time to vivisect the anti-vivisectionist movement.

Animal rights has a noble history, beginning in 19th century England where angry protests curtailed the casual exploitation of animals. Activists helped pass the Animal Welfare Act in 1966. The movement got a spiritual boost in 1975 with the publication of Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, which is to animal rights what Silent Spring is to the environmental movement.

In 1980, a New York high school teacher named Henry Spira ran full-age ads in the The New York times asking "How Many Rabbits Does Revlon Blind for Beauty’s Sake?" By the end of that year, Revlon capitulated, donating $750,000 to research alternatives to the dreaded Draize eye test on rabbits. The following year, the cosmetic industry began funding the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. By the time many New Age companies launched promotional tie-ins with activists in the late-1980s, Food and Drug Administration documents indicate that the industry had reduced animal testing by 96%, all-but eliminated it on finished products, and virtually phased out the two most controversial tests, Draize eye and LD-50.

Even industry apologists now admit that they were doing far more tests than necessary to meet safety concerns. Animal activists shook them our of their complacency. That’s the good news. The honesty factor goes sharply downhill from there. Over the past decade, the movement has slid from highlighting abuse to exploiting the idealism of consumers.

Let’s examine the current boycott of Gillette urged by PETA and internationally respected veterinarians like Kim Bassinger and Woody Harrelson, two the more prominent spokespersons for PETA. The boycott began in 1986 when an activist claims to have recorded undercover video of tortured animals at a Gillette laboratory, a charge the company hotly denied. Today, the boycott remains the centerpiece of PETA’s very successful fund raising efforts.

What is Gillette’s record? Since 1986, it has reduced all tests on animals, even those explicitly required by law, by over 90%. It has contributed millions of dollars to alternative research including a recent $100,000 grant administered with the Humane Society. For years, Gillette has used no laboratory animals to test any of its shaving or cosmetic products. It no longer tests on rabbits.

So why is it the target of boycotts? Gillette makes the mistake of taking its responsibility to protect consumers seriously. Each year, it is the only personal care manufacturer in the world to publish a "Safety Testing Report" which explains in detail which tests it uses and why. It actually takes heat from within its industry which is convinced that animal activists use this data to hysteria-monger. Sadly, they’re right.

Let’s compare Gillette to The Body Shop cosmetic company whose CEO Anita Roddick was the star attraction at the news conference. Body Shop’s carefully worded promotions create the impression that none of its products or ingredients has been tested on animals. Cosmetic authorities call Body Shop a "bathtub" company. Literally founded in a backroom, it never tested its cosmetics or ingredients because it couldn’t afford to. It uses mostly off-the-shelf formulas made with petrochemical-based colors, fragrances, preservatives and key base ingredients that have all been tested on animals. By promoting its opposition to animal testing, it turns its weakness – relying on responsible companies that do invest in product safety – into a brand marketing point-of-difference.

This sleight-of-marketing didn’t sit well with the West German government which successfully sued Body Shop/Germany in 1989 for misleading advertising. The court ruled that since all cosmetic companies use ingredients tested on animals by third parties, Body Shop claims that is products were "not tested on animals" and that "we test neither our raw materials nor our end products on animals" were misleading. Body Shop ended up junking its deceptive label, replacing it with the equally disingenuous "against animal testing."

The story gets worse. Internal Body Shop memos that surfaced in a 1993 court suit indicate that the company has been playing an interesting inside/outside game on this issue. Its chief scientist is on record informing the BSI board that "the technology of alternative testing for raw materials has not yet sufficiently advanced to guarantee product safety. Experts say that it could take up to 25 years or even longer before all the battery of tests required will have valid and approved alternatives." No wonder that in 1993, the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, a respected alternative research organization, called BSI’s policy a "complete sham." In 1994, the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals urged supporters not to buy its products. Last summer, the European Union’s Department of Trade and Industry announced that Body Shop’s "against animal testing" label deceives consumers and will be banned so as to "avoid any misleading claims." It also proposes to ban the use of red-eyed rabbits in animal rights propaganda.

So how did Anita Roddick come to be the point-person for the latest animal rights offensive? BSI’s offer to spearhead this campaign is in part a calculated attempt at forestalling the US government from following Europe’s attempt to reign in misleading advertising claims. In today’s free-for-all, cosmetic companies eagerly play the bunny card and don’t provide much information to consumers. But suffering bunnies does hype sales. As for the animal groups that sponsored the news conference, they released a statement calling Body Shop a "partner" which has been "extremely supportive of our efforts at reform." The added emphasis is decidedly mine.

There are enough qualifiers to drive a 747 through the coalition’s proposed standards. It doesn’t apply to ingredients which are developed initially for medical or pharmaceutical use but are widely incorporated in cosmetics. Any company can, and many do, insulate themselves from criticism by muddying the sourcing trail by buying ingredients from third-party suppliers. The standards would also have the bizarre effect of promoting drug store brands and mall firms like Body Shop and Bath and Body Works that use many off-the-shelf recipes while punishing the innovators and the most safety-conscious. In effect, these elements of the animal rights movement back a standard that rewards companies that exploit controversy by working the edges of the truth, all in the name of selling fennel toothpaste and rainforest hair rinse.

But this is more than a debate over fairness in marketing. There are potentially dangerous consequences if the animal rights issue continues to be commercialized under the guise of ‘good intentions.’ The stated agenda of the best-funded animal rights activists like PETA is no less than to convert society to vinyl shoe-wearing vegetarians. All animal testing would be banned, even on life-saving drugs. Yet, some of the most dramatic breakthroughs in medicine, from the latest AIDs protease inhibitor drugs to menopausal treatments for women, have resulted from the responsible use of animal tests. Scientists and government agencies in the US, Germany, Japan, Israel and the European Union remain unanimous in support of limited use of animal testing. Liberal research organizations such as the Investor Responsibility Research Center, which has sponsored many corporate resolutions to limit testing, make it clear that no alternative safety tests are on the horizon.

Although mainstream cosmetic companies once dragged their feet, they have since taken the lead in investing money rather than just rhetoric in alternative research. The best social research organizations have cut through the public relations facade. For instance, Boston-based US Trust praises Gillette for being "extremely proactive in disclosing...its animal testing policies," concluding that it is "quiet about its corporate social responsibility achievements and forthcoming in areas of social controversy."

Animal rights heroes like Henry Spira are mindful of the danger of demagoguery, even from "well-meaning" people. His calls for a constructive dialogue with industry have been met by hateful shouts of betrayal by those activists fearful that below-the-radar reform might dry up contributions. Animal rights activists don’t report this but testing of so-called vanity cosmetics on rabbits is almost non-existent. In effect, well-meaning consumers who contribute so much money to PETA and the like because they believe they are supporting ‘beauty without cruelty’ are funding a laboratory rate welfare society.

It’s particularly disheartening that efforts by this coalition between animal activists and New Age beauty firms may result in the gutting of comprehensive, consumer-friendly labeling. That animal rights groups and many New Age companies may believe they are taking an ethical stand on this issue doesn’t obviate their responsibility for muddying complex debates - and profiting handsomely from the confusion. The loser is civil discourse and reasoned debate.