Behind the Brand: L’Oréal

It is the biggest beauty company in the world and owns numerous ethical brands including The Body Shop and Pureology, but do its own ethics stand up to close scrutiny? Peter Salisbury reports

In July this year, the UK advertising standards authority, the ASA, ruled that an ad for Maybelline’s ‘Eraser’ foundation was misleading. The Photoshopping of model Christie Turlington had given the impression that the make-up had a bigger transformative effect than it was really capable of. As a result, the ad won't be shown again in its current form in the UK. If ethical campaigners had their way then Maybelline’s parent company, French cosmetics giant L’Oréal, would also be banned but this time from shelves across the country. The reason? L’Oréal’s continued testing of some of its products on animals and because of criticisms made about Switzerland’s Nestlé, a 30 per cent shareholder in L’Oréal, over its marketing of baby formula in the developing world.

Both claims are complex and contested. They also present a major headache for consumers who pride themselves on their ethical principles because they raise a question that is likely to become increasingly important in coming years. If we disapprove of the ethics of major corporations, should we boycott all of their brands?

This is particularly difficult in the case of L’Oréal, the biggest cosmetics company in the world. Their brands include everything from high-street fixture The Body Shop to the 100 per cent vegan haircare brand Pureology by way of ‘natural’ supermarket staple Garnier. The company also holds the license to make perfumes and cosmetics for high-end brands, including Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Diesel. Quitting your L’Oréal habit could be harder than you thought. How strong, though is the case against the company?

L’Oréal’s most outspoken critic is UK animal welfare campaigner Naturewatch, which since 2006 has called for a boycott of all L’Oréal products including those sold by The Body Shop. The company still uses animal testing extensively, Naturewatch claims, despite assertions that it has not tested any of its finished products on animals since 1989.

The devil, as they say is in the details. In 2009, L’Oréal published a report on its sustainable practices, which repeated the claim that it does not test finished products on animals. The problem is that as one of the world’s biggest cosmetics firms, much of its work is in the development of new ingredients for its products, and it is here that Naturewatch’s problems arise. EU legislation actually demands that all new cosmetic ingredients be tested on animals, although from 2009 onwards it has been working with cosmetics firms to eradicate the use of animal testing by 2013.

‘L’Oréal has not used animals to test its finished products since 1989, except in the case where national legislation requires it,’ the cosmetics giant said in its sustainability report. ‘This is the case in certain countries where L’Oréal operates and in those locations regulations require testing using animals before substances can be registered for commercial use. As L’Oréal operates on an international scale, it is obliged to comply with the current national legislation for products that are manufactured locally and sold locally.’

L’Oréal argues that it is a world leader in researching alternatives to animal testing, including the development of artificial tissue on which it has spent €600m to date It is also a founder member of the European Partnership for Alternatives to Animal Testing and closely involved in the international Tox Cast initiative which is run by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Rather than a cruel advocate of animal testing, it says, it is in fact fully engaged in attempting to make the practice obsolete.

The owner of one ethical skincare firm told the Ecologist that companies like L’Oréal do face a tough set of choices; either innovate in order to maintain their market share, or use existing ingredients and allow less ethical competitors to launch new products, or continue developing within the limits of regional legislation. Smaller producers can simply find green or ethical ways to produce established ingredients. Few ethical firms could afford to pay for the necessary research on artificial tissues that L’Oréal has done, he adds - at current exchange rates, €600m is not far off the £652m it paid for The Body Shop in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Nestlé issue also remains hotly disputed. In 1977, the company was accused of using its marketing campaigns in developing countries to promote the idea that its baby formula was better for infants than breast milk. Since then, a series of campaigns have been run to highlight the company’s practices abroad, particularly by the International Baby Food Action Network [IBFAN], which continues to call for a boycott of Nestlé’s products worldwide. In May 2011, IBFAN claimed that Nestlé had broken 130 rules set down by the World Health Organisation for the promotion of infant formulas in the developing world.

For its part, Nestlé says that it does not question the fact that breastfeeding is the best start a baby can have in life, and claims to work hard to meet the WHO’s rigorous standards. In corporate literature it describes its baby food as being part of a process of ‘complementary feeding,’ which is crucial to babies’ development. It also claims to distribute educational material to healthcare professionals in the developing world advocating breastfeeding, although as the IFBAN points out, it also advertises its formulas to these professionals using similar language.

Working out where you stand on these criticisms is down to individual ethics, and they are both complex and contentious issues and among a number that have been levelled at both firms. In Nestlé’s case in particular, the company has certainly acted in an ethically suspect manner in the past, while L’Oréal itself, through choice or not, is certainly spending big to quit its animal testing habit.

If you do decide that L’Oréal and Nestlé are acting in an unethical manner then the next big question is: should brands like The Body Shop or Pureology be punished for the sins of the parent company? The founders of both firms have strong ethical principles, and sold their companies so that their message could reach a wider market, making it a tough choice in both cases.  Buying their products may line the pockets of their L’Oréal and Nestlé paymasters, but by buying from The Body Shop, which does not test any of its products on animals, or vegan Pureology, you could also be sending a message to the guys at the top: more of the good ethical products, less of the morally questionable. Given that many big corporations are now spending more and more on big, ethical brands - Coca Cola, for example, now owns the UK’s Innocent, while another US giant, Kraft, has Green and Blacks chocolate - this is a problem which is unlikely to go away for the ethical consumer any time soon.

So who owns what? The L’Oréal brands

Consumer brands
L'Oréal Paris
Maybelline New York
CCB Paris  
La Roche Posay

Professional brands
L'Oréal Professionnel
Shu Uemura Art of Hair

Luxury brands
Helena Rubinstein
Shu Uemura 
Giorgio Armani 
Ralph Lauren
Viktor & Rolf
YSL Beauté
Maison Martin Margiela

The Body Shop

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