A fiercely debated topic within many vegan groups is whether or not consumers should invest in products from businesses with parent companies of questionable morals when it comes to their record on animal testing, or selling animal products.
A parent company is a company that owns enough stock of another firm to control its operation and management. When it comes to the realm of animal testing, one of the most famous examples is The Body Shop, owned by French cosmetics giant L’Oreal.
The Body Shop was set up by Annita and Gordon Roddick in 1976. The founders were vocal in their support for ethical causes, including sourcing Fair Trade ingredients, and never testing on animals. When the business was sold to L’Oreal, a huge controversy broke out around the disparity in the two brands’ values, as L’Oreal still tests (in its own words) ‘if regulatory authorities demand it for safety or regulatory purposes’. This means the company chooses to sell its products in markets that require testing, for example, China. Although Annita Roddick claimed the green ethics of The Body Shop would now influence L’Oreal, many customers decided to boycott the brand, believing it no longer aligned with their cruelty-free beliefs.
Cruelty Free International’s ‘leaping bunny’ symbol is considered by many to be the international standard denoting no testing (though this does not guarantee a product is vegan). Despite The Body Shop’s takeover, its products are still accredited with the ‘leaping bunny’. When it comes to its policy on certifying these kinds of brand Cruelty Free International says: “Like you, we want animal suffering to end, so we see it as part of our mission to spread our message as widely as possible. Leaping bunny certification is dependent on a company being able to demonstrate that it meets the criteria for manufacturing cruelty-free products, and corporate ownership alone does not affect eligibility. If a company’s processes and supply chain monitoring meet the strict leaping bunny criteria they can apply for certification.
“In a globalised cosmetics market unfortunately it is inevitable that leaping bunny certified companies may be taken over by larger corporations who may not be certified. We understand that this may change how some shoppers view a company’s ethical status, so we indicate clearly when a Leaping Bunny certified company has a non-certified parent company to enable shoppers to make informed choices.”
In other words, products certified as cruelty-free can be produced by businesses with parent companies that test. Clearly Cruelty Free International understands that some consumers will not purchase products knowing their money could be going to a company with a history of animal testing despite accreditation.
Copywriter and long term vegan Sarah Foulser is one such vegan. “I believe animal testing is torture. In this day and age, to subject an innocent creature to this kind of abuse, simply to have a new ingredient in a face cream, lipstick, or floor cleaner, is hideous. It is incredible to think that we still haven’t rolled out universal testing methods that eliminate the need for carrying our cruel experiments on animals who are then generally killed.
“Even if a particular product isn’t tested, if its parent company tests, my money is going directly into the hands of people who effectively torture animals. I don’t understand the idea of subsidising companies who are clearly doing something that contradicts my own ethics so comprehensively.
“Another benefit of this is that I tend to seek out smaller brands that are purely vegan, and boost small businesses, instead of pouring yet more money into the hands of giant corporations.”
The blog crueltyfreekitty.com is a useful and respected resource for information about animal testing. Founder Suzi covers both sides of the parent company argument. Arguing against buying these products she says: “There’s something else we can’t overlook: the profits ultimately go to the parent company. When a cruelty-free company is acquired by a new parent, the big guys at the top (those who get all the profits) also change. This means that by purchasing (cruelty-free status) Urban Decay products, you’re really giving your money to L’Oreal (its parent company).
“Because this is financing a company that tests on animals, this also means that you might indirectly be funding further animal testing. That’s so far from what we want to accomplish by purchasing cruelty-free products.”
This is a commonly held view within the vegan community, but not everyone agrees.
Beauty blogger Gemma Tomlinson (hellogemma.com) has written fairly extensively on the topic and put forward her case for spending money on accredited products from non-accredited parent companies. She says: “Many brands with strong ethical values have been purchased by larger corporations – parent companies’ who also own other businesses. If the other brands under the parent company have questionable moral codes, the ethical company is accused of selling out, making a deal with the devil and going back on everything they once held dear. For me this isn’t as black and white as it may seem, it isn’t always that simple.
“The Body Shop is probably the most famous example of an ethical brand ‘selling out’ – in 2006 they were purchased by L’Oréal who were perhaps the antithesis of everything Anita Roddick built her business on, yet the deal wasn’t as clear cut a decision as people might think…The Body Shop was able to share Fair Trade suppliers with L’Oréal to improve their ingredient selection for their other brands such as Garnier and Kiehls. The buyers from The Body Shop were able to act as a go-between for the small fair trade co-ops and L’Oréal, who now source many things more ethically than they once did. They learned from The Body Shop for the better and both parties benefited.
“Whilst two brands might make for strange bedfellows, there are often benefits to a brand having a parent company – funding to keep a flailing business afloat, money for counters in major beauty halls, access to create and expand the product line, or in The Body Shop’s case being able to share ethical knowledge with a juggernaut and influence their future business operations. I’m not saying having a parent company with differing ethical values is necessarily a good thing, or the ideal option, but I do think it’s important to see that there is often a more nuanced relationship where both parties can benefit. It doesn’t mean we should automatically abandon a brand, but rather ask questions, find out more information and then make a decision as to whether or not we want to support them.”
Parent companies do not just relate to cosmetic products; food items can also be sold by subsidiaries of larger umbrella businesses. An example is Swedish Glace, which was acquired by global corporation Unilever. With its history of animal testing, as well as a huge portfolio full of non-vegan items, how do the brands align?
As the trademark relations officer at The Vegan Society, Abigail Stevens is at the forefront when it comes to seeing vegan products being brought to market. She says: “With the rise in popularity of vegan products and plant-based alternatives we are seeing more brands being bought by large corporations (or parent companies) looking to diversify their portfolios. A perfect example is plant-based milks, with their growing mainstream appeal they are an ideal investment, and just last year the popular brand Alpro was bought by dairy giant Danone.
“In doing this, dairy corporations such as Danone are covering all possibilities and ensuring that a shift towards plant-based milks doesn’t limit their profits. Does this mean the Alpro brand will see a change in its ethics, start to sell lacto-free milk or be wiped off the market indefinitely? Probably not, as the brand was named the fastest growing in ‘Britain’s 100 Biggest Grocery Brands’ list in 2015 and is set to only grow its worth.
“It does mean that Alpro is owned by a corporation that actively promotes, sells and profits from milk, but Alpro will likely remain a brand offering plant-based, vegan and widely accessible products to those looking for alternatives to animal products. The diversification of portfolios in dairy corporations to include vegan and plant-based products is a sign of the times. It shows that the dairy industry is taking note of consumer demand and moving away from ‘traditional’ animal products to invest in alternatives.
“Overall, this will mean an increase in the availability of vegan products and competitive, lower prices, helping to make these products accessible to more people.”
Sarah Foulser says: “While I can’t go ‘off grid’ completely, and still need to support places like supermarkets who sell meat, I still avoid companies with unethical parent companies as far as practicable. I understand this argument that buying their products mean more vegan products become mainstream, but for me, it just isn’t a comfortable way to spend my money.
“When it comes to specialist items such as vegan ice-cream, which now has a parent company that tests, I will find an alternative brand or go without. It is disappointing to me when small vegan businesses ‘sell out’ to corporations. I feel they are effectively selling their ethics for cash, and I no longer want to support that brand.
“People argue that buying vegan items from a non-vegan companies won’t promote the non-vegan items, but again, for me the issue is putting money into the pockets of unethical businesses – money that could be going to companies who share my values.”
As ever, this lies with the individual to make a decision as to where to draw the line. The Vegan Society’s Abigail says: “The Vegan Trademark, which is regulated by The Vegan Society, registers over 26,000 products around the world to demonstrate that they are suitable for vegans. Each product is checked to ensure that it does not contain animal products and the product and its ingredients are not tested on animals.
“If a vegan trademark registered product is bought by a parent company that has a history of testing their other brands on animals, checks are carried out to ensure that the product is still suitable, including ensuring that testing policies will not change as a result of the acquisition. In the common occurrence that none of the testing policies change as a result of their new parent company, the products can still be registered as suitable for vegans with the vegan trademark.”
What many vegans agree on is that this is a decision the individual should make based on their own research and belief. Abigail Stevens says: “The Vegan Society acknowledges that individuals might not want to ‘support’ these parent companies, and encourage all ethically-minded consumers to research and choose products that suit their personal preferences.”
Beauty blogger Gemma Tomlinson takes a similar line: “I cannot emphasise enough how much I recommend people do some of their own research and decide where they stand on the issue. For me this applies across many things in life, we are all better off when we check things out for ourselves and form our own conclusions based on what we know.”
Fat Gay Vegan, blogger and Vegan Life agony uncle, also has an opinion on the matter, summing it up comprehensively saying: “Living a vegan life means doing what you can to reduce your dependency on animal-derived products. While the ideal would be to only shop with vegan-owned companies, the shopping habits of millions of vegans on the planet are strictly shaped by financial forces outside their control.
“For many compassionate shoppers, most of the vegan products they have available to them are produced by non-vegan multinationals. It is not always practical or even possible for every item needed in a household to be sourced from a completely vegan company and people shouldn’t be shamed when they need to make those choices.”