Beginning in March 2013, the European Union will ban the import and sale of any cosmetics that were tested on animals. According to Time magazine, the ban isn’t just on makeup and other beauty products, but also includes toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste and soap.

The ban, approved by a wide margin in 2003 by the European Parliament, was initially set to begin in 2009. While industry lobbyists managed to effectively delay that vote for a few more years, Time reports, animal rights groups such as Cruelty Free International finally look to gain satisfaction from their efforts to see the ban imposed.

With the EU now firmly on board the anti-testing bandwagon, will the rest of the world follow suit? Or are European consumers – who comprise the world’s largest cosmetics market – an altogether different breed? And does the EU ban look to affect the U.S. beauty market?

The many fronts of the cosmetic wars

As might be expected, U.S. activist groups aren’t holding their breath to find out the answers to those questions. Some of their concerns extend beyond the issue of animal testing:

  • According to The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, some U.S. cosmetics laws have been in place since 1938. In addition, “Loopholes in U.S. federal law allow the $50 billion cosmetics industry to put unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing, no monitoring of health effects and inadequate labeling requirements. In fact, cosmetics are among the least-regulated products on the market.”
  • On its web site, The Humane Society of the United States asks, “How many animals suffered or died to test the shampoo and soap you used today? Many of the products that people use on a daily basis are tested on dogs, rabbits, mice and other animals. The good news? It’s never been easier to find cruelty-free products.”
  • Similar statements have been made by other groups interested in seeing the U.S. cosmetic industry clean up its act. And in other parts of the world, such as Canada and Israel, action is underway that echoes the EU’s ban.

Moving beyond lipstick on a pig

But with the U.S. yet to impose anything resembling a ban, it’s difficult to predict whether the EU’s actions, coupled with those of other countries, will amount to much of a global effect. Just last year, in fact, America’s powerful personal-care product lobby led the fight to defeat a Congressional bill that would have extended oversight of at least some products to the Food & Drug Administration.

There’s also the question of whether American consumers care enough to demand “cruelty-free” products – or whether most Americans even know that the manufacturing of beauty products can involve animal testing. A quick Google search reveals plenty of web sites dedicated to getting the message out about the issue, including some that provide “cruelty-free” brand names and/or hints for discerning purchases (such as reading the ingredients listed on the label). While there’s no way to know for certain, the “cruelty-free” movement seems to be on the radar only where one might reasonably suspect: urban areas and the Internet.

That’s not to say that activist groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) aren’t doing what they can to bring the issue before the public. Just a few days ago, PETA announced that three American cosmetic companies – Avon, Mary Kay and Estee Lauder – have resumed animal testing for some of their products. Not in their own U.S. labs, according to PETA, but by paying for the testing to be done at the demand of the Chinese government, which “requires tests on animals before many cosmetics products can be marketed in China.”

PETA further reports that “Mary Kay had taken some steps to work with officials in China, and at our urging, promised to continue this effort—but Avon and Estee Lauder appear to have gone along with the painful animal tests without objection.” The fact that the Chinese haven’t exactly been known to pay even scant attention to the rest of the world’s concerns regarding most anything complicates the issue even further. The former Sleeping Giant has been ruinously awake and active for some years now, flouting worldwide standards and polluting the planet as much as it pleases. The EU ban likely won’t extend beyond the Great Wall anytime soon.

When all is said and done, though, the EU’s ban may yet end up having a significant effect on U.S. beauty-related exports. Cosmetic companies that wish to sell to Europe will now have to comply with its new prohibitions. Soon enough, there might not be much of a reason to produce cosmetics that incorporate animal testing. The EU currently bans hundreds of chemicals used in cosmetic production. The U.S.-based chemical and animal activists might well take notice and finally team up. Then, some mainstream media attention to the issue – beyond the occasional story (or blog post!) – might focus consumer attention that’s apparently still waiting to be awoken.

At that point, a U.S. law banning animal testing of cosmetic products would seem only the logical thing to do. For even the most gridlocked of Congresses.

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