Faking it can be hazardous to others’ health

Apparently, saying your products aren’t tested on animals doesn’t mean what you might think it means:

…for example a company may say ‘Finished product not tested on animals’ or ‘not tested on animals’, which means the ingredients could well be!

Avon says: “Avon does not test products or ingredients on animals, nor do we request others to do so on our behalf. … BUT they may still buy new ingredients that have been tested on animals, therefore benefiting from animal testing.

So the companies aren’t actually lying on their packaging, but they’re not really telling the whole truth. If you don’t know the full set of denials that would be required to constitute no animal testing, as it would be commonly understood, then you can’t know what they are doing: only what they’re not doing. Clearly that’s an unsatisfactory state of affairs for anybody concerned about animal welfare.

So what’s the real problem? The problem is that the companies who genuinely avoid animal testing don’t have any way to tell us about it. It’s what economists call a ‘signalling’ problem because what they want to tell you–that they don’t test on animals–can be faked by a lot of other companies who do use animal-tested products.
Imagine, for instance, that you have a university degree; that tells a potential employer something about your skill set. The degree is a ‘signal’ of your skills. Now suppose that universities weren’t regulated in any way, so you could get degrees off the internet that were indistinguishable from ‘real’ degrees. Well, now your qualification doesn’t really tell the employer much! Because the degree can be faked, it’s no longer useful as a signal.

That’s a lot like the problem with the animal testing: if anyone can say they don’t test on animals when they’re really doing it in a sneaky way then the statement has no weight. How can you know who’s really animal friendly in their product development? Now comes the really bad part. If it’s expensive to be animal friendly in your development, but you can’t charge more for it because nobody will believe your marketing statements, then how do you stay in business? The implication is that most of the animal friendly businesses won’t survive if they can’t signal effectively.

How can we overcome the problem? Well, some people would point to regulated standards, but a simpler solution is to have some certification procedure much like the SPCA does for free-range eggs. You can tell it works because the SPCA-certified eggs tend to sell for persistently more in supermarkets and still stay in business. Let’s hope something similar springs up for animal testing of cosmetics.

  • Richard29

    The trick with Certifications is that what consumers are after is a simple Yes/No flag that indicates that a product is ‘good’.

    But what is good?

    ‘Healthy’ is not easy to define – I’ve seen plenty of sugary foods carry the heart foundation tick (bad for your teeth is not necessarily bad for your heart) I’m sure most of the fatty foods could get the dental association tick if they wanted. 

    Organic has a bunch of certifications – but people confuse this with quality – nothing shows that organic foods are any more nutritious or taste any better – the organic certification is about protecting soils and waterways from chemical pollution – and even then it’s not perfect – the worst of the approved ‘organic’ pesticides are more harmful than a bunch of the ‘chemical’ pesticides, so how much better organic is for soils still depends on the approach taken by the individual farming operation.

    Then there is stuff like ‘Rainforest Alliance Certified’ that McDonalds have adopted as a pilot in NZ as an alternative to Fair Trade.
    Rainforest alliance has 10 standards that tick all the right boxes in terms of protecting land, waterways, wokers conditions etc – but the great thing for the budget conscious multinational is that they only require 80% overall compliance with a minimum of 50% on any given standard – plus they only require 30% of the product to be certified in order to carry the Rainforest Alliance (to their credit McDonalds NZ source 100% certified product although they are not required to)

    And then there are companies like Dole – who picked an ISO standard or two to comply with and made up their own “Ethical Choice” sticker:

    And the Dilmah family – who don’t comply with any externally audited standard – they give a “significant share”of their profit to a charitable foundation in their native Sri Lanka. There is really no way of knowing how that stacks up in terms of ‘good’ relative to a conventional fair trade certification.

    There is a saying that in politics you get to vote once every three years for the kind of society you want but as a consumer you get to vote every day with your wallet. That’s all well an good – but as an ethical consumer it seems like a proportional, mixed member, preference ranked, transferable vote system where the parties change every year or so and the candidates switch more often than that….

    • Competing standards could be seen as a problem, but only if consumers aren’t able to find out what they mean. If they don’t bother to look it up then they obviously don’t care all that much! Now this could be a situation like Bill was talking about this morning where people don’t know that they need to look it up. But that’s why we have posts like this attempting to bring the issue to people’s attention 😉

      On the point of organic vs quality, I think the question then becomes, ‘what do people really want’? Maybe they just want to signal that they care by buying organic and don’t really care about the quality!