China’s $33 billion cosmetics market is a gold mine for global beauty brands, but its draconian animal testing requirements have caused complications for firms trying to retain spotless cruelty-free credentials.

This week, MAC was the subject of online controversy over its decision to sell in China, which requires all brands—including cruelty-free ones—to pay a government fee for animal testing in order to be approved for sale. Pop star Sia, a vegan who campaigns for animal rights, faced online backlash for launching a charity collaboration lipstick with MAC and took to Twitter to defend the brand. MAC has been criticized in the past for selling in China, while NARS faced an online boycott campaign this summer when it decided to make its products available in the country.

Brands hoping to have their vegan cake and eat it too in China have launched digital initiatives to reach Chinese consumers internationally. Urban Decay markets to traveling Chinese shoppers through its Chinese-language travel retail site, which it promotes with paid Baidu search terms, according to L2’s China: Cross-Border and Travel Retail report. This site lets users click on Urban Decay products to find duty-free stores where they can buy them abroad, such as South Korea’s Lotte and Shilla. They are then directed to those retailers’ e-commerce sites, which allow them to order the products online and pick them up in-store during their travels. 

Cross-border e-commerce is another option for beauty brands. In November, supermodel Miranda Kerr’s organic indie brand Kora Organics launched cross-border WeChat and Tmall Global stores. As part of the launch, Kerr posted an Instagram message guaranteeing to fans that the products would be shipped from Australia and would not need to undergo the required government testing.

Instagram

Brands that sell in the China market may have some hope of regaining their global cruelty-free status in the future, as the China Food and Drug Administration just opened one non-animal testing lab. To quell the controversy, MAC and NARS have both publicized on social media their support of the Institute for In Vitro Sciences (IIVS), a firm helping China develop non-animal methods of cosmetics testing. For now, those that can’t compromise on a socially conscious image have to use digital workarounds to reach the China market.

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