Avon & China: the Economics of Harm

UPDATE from In Defense of Animals, posted on FB, July 2014. China Stops Cosmetic Animal Testing The Chinese government just passed a law that removes animal testing requirements on cosmetic products. With a $1.7 billion cosmetics industry, this is a major change that will save countless animal lives. This is a huge reversal from China’s 2012 animal testing mandate for all cosmetic products, which prompted companies like Avon and Estée Lauder to drop their cruelty-free policies and start animal testing in order to tap into the growing Chinese cosmetics market. Due to loopholes in the law, experts warn that some animal testing may continue, but it’s a big step in the compassionate direction.
Let’s leave the subject of animals for a moment, and focus on the specious arguments by which multi-national industries get away with murder, so to speak. In the late sixties, when I was about 16, I watched a TV documentary on how cosmetics and beauty care companies experimented on animals to both test and improve their products (at the time, as I recall, “hypoallergenic” shampoos were the newest thing). TV images in that doc of cats with their skulls prised open and electrodes attached to their brains, eyes, and faces left me in shock.
I had only just begun wearing makeup (strict upbringing) and was now faced with what I thought was a moral dilemma. I had already joined the second wave of feminism and would shortly be working with other young women to set up a Women’s Centre at my local college (CEGEP). Wasn’t that enough? Some of the more militant feminists had already eschewed cosmetics, but for completely unrelated reasons.
I decided at the time to continue wearing makeup until I could find a cosmetics company that was, as we now call them, “cruelty-free”. I probably did have a redeemer complex at the time, but I was too young to connect the dots between being an agent of change and day-to-day lifestyle choices.

It was probably in the very early 80s that Avon announced its cruelty-free policy.  I wasn’t really fond of their makeup choices, both in terms of colours and textures, but I switched…and yes, now and then, I’d cheat and try one of the cheaper brands, but I’d always return, and I have stuck with Avon all these decades.

So when I read that Avon was selling to China which, to begin with, has one of the worst human-rights records in the world and–here’s the kicker–because China insists that cosmetic importers must show that their products have been tested on animals, Avon allows the products they export to China to be tested on animals.  To sum up, a company which has won awards from animal advocacy groups long before those groups had millions of followers; a company which policed itself  because it saw the harm it was doing; a company which…well, read Avon’s response below.  I’m sure you’ll see self-contradiction of such scope that it beggars the imagination–not to mention the patronizing ending urging me to support “global non-animal testing”.

Email response from Avon dated Feb 27, 2012:

Thank you for your email sharing your concerns, and for giving us the opportunity to respond.  Avon does not conduct animal testing to substantiate the safety of any of its products. In fact, Avon was the first major cosmetics company to end animal testing more than 20 years ago.

Although Avon does not conduct animal testing to substantiate the safety of any of its products, some products may be required by law to undergo additional safety assessment in a few countries at the direction of a government or health agency and this may include animal testing. In these instances Avon always attempts to persuade the requesting authority to accept non-animal test data. If no compromise can be reached, we must comply with the requirement for additional testing. This is an issue facing all global beauty companies. We are not alone in this dilemma, and we continue to push for regulations that do not necessitate the use of animals.

Avon has worked to advance alternatives to animal testing for decades. Avon continues to support research into alternatives conducted by the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME) in the United Kingdom, the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University in the US and the European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing. Most recently Avon joined the Scientific Advisory Panel of The Institute for In Vitro Sciences (IIVS), a non-profit research and testing organization dedicated to the advancement of in vitro (non-animal) methods worldwide and Avon became a Founding Sponsor of the American Society for Cellular Computational Toxicology. Finally, Avon works closely on this issue with other companies in the Beauty industry as a member of the US Personal Care Products Council.

Respect for animal welfare is a cornerstone of Avon’s product safety philosophy. We will continue to work actively to advance the use of alternatives to animal testing worldwide. We encourage you to call for the global acceptance of non-animal test data.


Tod Arbogast

Vice President

Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility


Don’t get me wrong…it’s not my place to tell a big company like Avon where to sell its products, but, as you can see, there is a bizarre disconnect between their policy, their funding of non-animal testing yet their willingness to sell their product to a country where not even human life and human rights are respected (no offense, China).  Maybe I should check their sales figures…maybe Avon really needs the money.

In terms of Canada’s stance on related matters,  Foreign Minister John Baird just this past week visited Myanmar, another Asian country whose human rights violations go back decades. In 1988, Canada imposed sanctions, economic and all sorts, on Myanmar for that reason.  His current visit was to congratulate Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.  A cynical person might view Baird’s visit as a toe-in-the-water towards relaxing the sanctions because Canada, as it has done somewhat with China, wants to re-open trade with Myanmar.  I see no immediate evidence for that belief, and I am not that cynical…not yet, anyway.

I appreciate that Avon responded to my query; they’re very good about that, and doing so in an era where you can’t even get an acknowledgement of receipt note from a potential employer makes it even more appreciated.  I have mulled this over for a few weeks now.  I have no doubt that hundreds of other companies, across a wide range of industries, are enjoying the same kind of economic sleight-of-hand as Avon (remember Nestlé selling sub-standard baby milk to African mothers in the late 80s?  remember the pharmaceuticals being caught red-handed doing the same with their drugs, also in Africa?).  To these companies, it’s just a geographical adjustment to their sales numbers.

Rather than cave to barbaric regulations in countries that bully and terrorize their own populations, Avon could consider not selling their products there.  There’s a thought.   I am as disappointed in Avon as I was in myself all those years ago for not doing what was right.  Values, we hope, evolve over time.  What I thought as a young woman was a “moral dilemma” wasn’t a “dilemma” at all…but it was a moral choice.  The moment we know something is wrong, the scales of right-and-wrong come into play…and it can’t be a seesaw.

I may have been perfect in my past life, but I’m clearly not in this life.  I must go and telephone my Avon representative now who’s been waiting for my call.  I’ve made my decision.



  1. Sylvie
    Mar 9, 2012

    Proud of you…I stopped wearing make up many years ago after witnessing those horrors.Became vegetarian for same reasons and refuse to feed Iams products to my animals .I am beginning to wonder what and where to buy stuff…Increasingly difficult

    • Cynthia
      Mar 9, 2012

      Thanks. There are cruelty-free shampoos, etc in health food and vegetarian stores. Biotope is in my neck of the woods and has a wide selection of cruelty-free shampoos, beauty care products etc. As a kid, me and my cousin used to lick a red Smartie and use that as lipstick…surprising how long it stayed on!

  2. Evelyne Villers
    Mar 10, 2012

    Yes – Avon has deceived me. PETA has an interesting Web Site where you can search before going shopping: http://www.peta.org/living/beauty-and-personal-care/companies/default.aspx
    Have you ever used it?

    • Cynthia
      Mar 10, 2012

      Yes, PETA’s lists of cruelty-free companies/products is excellent, and I’ve referred to them many times in the past six years. There’s also another site which gives simple recipes for cleaning products that are eco-friendly: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/make-your-own-non-toxic-cleaning-kit.html It covers everything from window cleaners to car upholstery cleaners. I use most of them. I find that vinegar (which is 98 % antibacterial) and baking soda clean just about anything. It’s amazing that, in so many cases, the old remedies are the best, the safest, and the most eco-friendly. The huge marketing machines went into action just after WW2 when toothpaste, Windex, etc were touted as products to make everything “clean and shiny”. Hell, as long as something is clean, it doesn’t have to shine like the Sun! So much of what was developed in the post-war period has created the chemical allergies and environmental damage we’re dealing with now. God knows what went on behind the big closed doors of industry…so much was kept from the public.

      • Evelyne Villers
        Mar 10, 2012

        Thank you for sharing this site with us. A new site for me 🙂

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