Illustration by Beatrice Sala

I recently invented a skin-care oil that is guaranteed to make you look 20 years younger. 

It is a revolutionary product but unfortunately, I have to test this skin oil on rabbits in order to make sure my experimental oils won’t burn people’s skin off or poison them. However, I am really hoping to sell this rabbit-tested oil as “ethical” — how could it not be in this day and age? I want it to be sold in tiny bottles at austerely-furnished boutique stores and I have hired an award-winning design agency to work on sustainable packaging but the product won’t be complete if I don’t get the right labels: “vegan,”recyclable,” “natural ingredients,” “plastic-free”… and the crown jewel of ethical cosmetics labels, “cruelty free.” 

There are many cruelty-free bunnies that companies like my imagined skin-care brand could choose from. If it really wanted to commit to being truly cruelty-free, it could go for the “leaping bunny” of Cruelty Free International (CFI) or the “Caring Consumer” label, which also features a bunny, from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). But since this imagined-but-nonetheless-very-realistic company may or may not have killed or maimed hundreds of rabbits to make its oil, it probably won’t make it through the application process. So instead, it could opt for one of the many “fake” bunny labels around, which brands have used to make consumers believe they are cruelty free. Here’s the thing: The majority of consumers I’m targeting probably know that a bunny logo equals cruelty-free, but they don’t know which bunny symbol is truly cruelty free. 

Via EthicalPixie

We often speak of how design clarifies, but in the case of cruelty free products, label design becomes a tool to obfuscate, transforming ethics into an advertising ploy. First of all, “cruelty free” is a concept without an authorized definition, and so it is endlessly transmutable as a product feature for cosmetics. Cruelty Free International, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Vegan Action/Vegan Awareness Foundation, and Vegan Society are all organizations that have created cruelty free certified labels that can be applied for, then licensed (for a fee) upon approval, to signify that a product has not been tested on animals — but each organization has varying definitions for what “cruelty free” means. 

While in the EU, UK, and some states of the US there are laws that ban animal testing, there are gaping loopholes in these laws that allow corporations to continue to test on animals as long as it doesn’t happen within the borders of these countries or states. And when it comes to the actual labeling of products, there are no legal regulations banning the use of unofficial “cruelty free” logos. Major companies have reportedly used these official labels illegally on packaging with rarely any ramifications. 

“It’s perfectly legal to use these unofficial logos, however there are designers/business owners who use the {certified labels} illegally too. This is a practice I’ve unfortunately seen in the industry and it’s something to keep in mind for designers,” said Suzana Rose, founder of the website Cruelty-Free Kitty, which offers tips and suggestions about how to stay truly cruelty free.

“The ultimate power is in the hands of the buyers, so that’s where our focus is,” added Senior Vice President of PETA Kathy Guillermo. “Consumer-demand has driven the movement to end blinding and poisoning product testing.” 

For a shopper who might’ve just learned of the violence of the cosmetics industry, and was hoping to begin shopping for cruelty-free products, there are several steps they would need to take to even begin. First, the would-be ethical buyer has to look for “official” labels: PETA’s cruelty free bunny (which recently has a new logo), CFI’s “Leaping Bunny,” or Choose Cruelty Free’s bunny (Choose Cruelty Free recently merged with CFI). According to Cruelty Free Kitty and a second ethical labeling blog, Ethicalpixie, CFI’s leaping bunny is the most strict. 

To make matters even more confusing, sometimes companies that are cruelty free approved by CFI or PETA haven’t licensed the mark and don’t display the label. Which is why most blogs and cruelty free organizations recommend independent research on the part of the consumer. Both PETA and CFI offer a web reference list for brands and companies that are official partners of their cruelty-free program and have undergone the rigorous assessment it requires. 

A would-be ethical shopper might become frustrated by all the cruelty-free labeling and confusing research steps they have to do to find a product that suits their ethics. And in the process, they may turn to Certified Vegan or Vegan society for their official list — surely if something is vegan, then no harm was done to animals? This is, unfortunately, not true either: By labeling standards, if something is “vegan,” it’s only supposed to mean that the product doesn’t contain any animal products, and this may not preclude testing on animals. Similarly, products that are advertized to be sustainable may still be a product of animal cruelty — and is also not necessarily vegan, of course. Which illustrates the impossible dilemma that a communication designer is faced with: no bunny icon, nor any single mark or label, can instantly articulate these complexities within the second-long window that a consumer takes to look a product over. ​

All of this is to say, for those seeking moral clarity at the parfumerie — prepare first to be confounded. But to help us muddle through the visual rhetoric of commercial cruelty, a number of independent blogs, social media accounts, and YouTubers have committed themselves to rooting out the cruel brands, like the aforementioned Cruelty Free Kitty. “There’s a big problem in how meaningless or confusing some labels are,” emphasized Rose.

Cruelty-Free Kitty homepage

“Unfortunately when it comes to the generic bunnies, it’s a similar situation to brands claiming to be ‘natural’, ‘hypoallergenic,’ and such,” continued Rose. “These claims are not regulated and any brand is able to use them.” Cruelty-Free Kitty uses its platform and clean web blog to point out which beauty products are cruelty-free, but also offers a list of companies that reportedly test on animals, including, apparently, Clinique, Clean & Clear, Johnson & Johnson, to name a few. Other accounts like YouTuber Cruelty Free A to Z also use social media as a tool to help people understand what it means for a product to be truly cruelty free. PETA too has deployed social media as a means of informing their nine million global members about the deceptions of cruelty-based products.

When thought of from the perspective of a company that aims to deceive or mislead, the design of a simple and unregulated symbol, or even the third-party certified and licensed symbol — ie. a  bunny and the words “cruelty-free”  — is an extraordinarily useful device for obfuscating accountability. In this world of products, none are “cruel” — and you will never find a label that says “a cruelty product.” Which is important because while we might assume that PETA or CFI are the ones regulating the brands, in truth it’s the opposite, because in order for these labels to exist at all it requires the cooperation and partnership of businesses. After all, there is no law that requires businesses to enter into their assessments. And most consumers seem to agree: A 2012 study of consumer behavior found that most would be willing buy cruelty free products over normal products — but when they learned that the term “cruelty free” didn’t have any one meaning, “they found using the cruelty free designation to be less socially responsible and less safe than they did before learning that information,” according to Joonghwa Lee, one of the researchers conducting the study.

Studies like this also attest to the fact that many believe that consumers “choose” with their dollars, and that the beauty aisles are where the public can participate in a capitalist fantasy of democracy. But such is the nature of capitalism. The game is always rigged: It ensures that large corporations can make up the rules as they go, and only those with the money and time to go through the application process of CFI or PETA can participate. Brands do not have to talk about cruelty to animals when they are perpetrating it, and only those with enough money — who live in certain places and have access to certain stores and brands to apply the morally-superior lip balm — can access “cruelty free” products. It’s all of this that makes buying “cruelty free” beauty products less an ethical choice, and more a signifier of class. 

As for how certified labels serve the bunny — and here I mean the real bunny, the one who  suffers and is often killed for the production line — it remains impossible to say for certain. PETA and CFI continue to try and put efforts into revealing the violent brands through things like CFI’s European Citizens’ Initiative to strengthen legislation in the EU. Cruelty Free Kitty, on the other hand, is introducing its own labeling system this year, in order to cut out some of the loopholes, such as using animal-tested ingredients or using third-party companies to test on animals. But at the end of the day, no company has to open its doors without a warrant. And often people and organizations have to apply clandestine strategies to actually root-out violence against animals. 

When asked if any labeling system is effective, Swetha Surapaneni, founder of Ethicalpixie said, “unfortunately no. Companies make false claims using labels like ‘Cruelty Free’ or ‘Not Tested on Animals’ for advertising purposes and to mislead consumers.” Supply chains for almost every major cosmetic and beauty company are so large, so opaque, and so abstract that tracing products to their origins takes immense lengths. What we should take away from the deeply mystifying bunny labeling system, is one simple truth: In the over a century since the Frances Power Cobbe founded the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, cruelty remains the norm for industries, and they daily perform violence against animals. For the would-be ethical consumer, they do have the choice to buy a “cruelty free” cosmetic product, but as there is no definition for the term, no real legal regulations for cruelty-against animals, there is little certainty in what they’re actually purchasing. All of this makes buying cruelty-free less an expression of choice, and more a sign of faith in a brand or corporation that likely doesn’t think much about the well-being of bunnies at all.