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What Does Cruelty-Free *Really* Mean?

If you’re a label reader like me, you may have noticed the words “cruelty-free,” “not tested on animals” or a little bunny logo on some of your favorite makeup or self-care products. This is usually a good sign, but it can be misleading since the definition of “cruelty” is often left to the brand for interpretation.

That little bunny logo can mean a few different things, but each animal rights organization has a different set of criteria before it can certify a brand as cruelty-free. In this post, I break down what “cruelty-free” actually means, and how to tell which products have really never been tested on animals!

Legal Definition of Cruelty-Free

Generally, cruelty-free just means that a product was not tested on animals. Unfortunately, there is no legal definition of cruelty-free 🙁, so it is largely up to the brand to determine what cruelty-free means to them. Because of this, many products labeled as cruelty-free may have been tested on animals by suppliers, or in countries where animal testing is required by law, such as mainland China.

On the FDA website under labeling claims for “Cruelty Free”/”Not Tested on Animals,” it is revealed that:

“The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms” and that “these companies may rely on raw material suppliers or contract laboratories to perform any animal testing necessary to substantiate product or ingredient safety.”

It is also important to understand that these products may still contain animal products, so it does not necessarily mean that they are vegan, although all products listed on this website are animal-free unless otherwise noted.

Legally, cruelty-free doesn’t mean much, but luckily there are a number of non-governmental organizations like PETA and Leaping Bunny that certify brands as cruelty-free based on certain standards.

PETA Bunny Logo Certification

If you see either of the logos above on a product, it means that the brand has been certified cruelty-free by PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, after completing a questionnaire and signing a statement of assurance. Both logos are owned by PETA and mean the same thing, but the one on the right is newer and I have not yet noticed on any products.

According to PETA, the brand must sign a statement:

“verifying that they do not conduct, commission, or pay for any tests on animals for ingredients, formulations, or finished products and that they pledge not to do so in the future.”

Although this is much stricter than the legal definition (or lack thereof), it still gives a lot of leeway to companies, since it does not include suppliers, or animal testing that the brand isn’t outright paying for.

PETA does not conduct audits to see if a company is telling the truth. Instead, they know that the companies do not test on animals because “A company that has publicly announced an end to tests on animals and states in writing that it doesn’t test on animals would face a public relations disaster and potential lawsuits if it was caught lying.”

This is true, but it may not be the best method of verification. A lawsuit is highly unlikely since there is no legal definition of cruelty-free or animal testing. It can be a little risky to just give a big corporation the benefit of the doubt.

Leaping Bunny Logo Certification

Leaping Bunny has higher standards for cruelty-free labeling than PETA. On their website, they have a long list of extremely specific criteria that must be met before a brand can bear the Leaping Bunny logo. Many of the standards are similar to PETA’s, but Leaping Bunny provides specific definitions and more in-depth criteria for what qualifies as animal testing.

Leaping Bunny states that to be certified:

“The Company does not and shall not conduct, Commission, or be a party to Animal Testing of any Cosmetic and/or Household Products including, without limitation, formulations and Ingredients of such products.”

This is more strict than PETA’s criteria because it not only prohibits companies from paying for or commissioning testing, but from being involved in any animal testing, period. They also prohibit the use of third-party suppliers that test on animals, and require that all third-party suppliers and manufacturers sign a “Declaration of Product Compliance.”

Leaping Bunny does not allow certified brands to agree to animal testing in countries where it is required by law (such as mainland China), something that is up for interpretation by PETA’s standard, and completely acceptable by the FDA’s standard.

To be 100% sure that brands are following these rules, Leaping Bunny requires each company and its suppliers to go through yearly audits by an accredited auditing firm, and to reapply for certification annually.

Choose Cruelty Free Logo Certification

CCF is a smaller Australian organization with very strict criteria for animal testing. Not only does their certification require everything that PETA and Leaping Bunny does, but goes a step further by not allowing certified brands to use any animal products whatsoever, and even encourages brands to avoid palm oil!

To bear the CCF logo, brands must have:

Never tested: “None of its products and none of its product ingredients have ever been tested on animals by it, by anyone on its behalf, by its suppliers or anyone on their behalf.”

Or fit the five-year rule: “None of its products and none of its product ingredients have been tested on animals by it, by anyone on its behalf, by its suppliers or anyone on their behalf at any time within a period of five years immediately preceding the date of application for accreditation.”

This organization does not certify smaller brands owned by a larger company unless their parent company fits the same criteria. For example, even though The Body Shop doesn’t test on animals, they are owned by parent company L’Oreal that is infamous for animal testing.

Like Leaping Bunny, CCF will not certify brands who’s suppliers test on animals, or brands who allow governmental organizations to test their products on animals. The biggest distinction between CCF and Leaping Bunny’s certification is CCF’s stance about animal products used in cosmetics.

Choosing Cruelty Free won’t certify any company who uses ingredients “derived from an animal killed specifically for the extraction of that ingredient, forcibly extracted from a live animal in a manner that occasioned pain or discomfort,” or even ingredients “that are slaughterhouse by-products of a commercially significant value.”

Audits are not conducted by CCF, but they do require companies to regularly reapply for certification.

Bottom Line on Cruelty-Free Labeling

“Cruelty-Free” or “Not Tested on Animals” on its own doesn’t mean much, but luckily we have these three organizations to keep our brands in check! I encourage everyone to start buying cruelty-free and to look for these bunny logos on their favorite products. Watch out for fake bunny logos or brands that don’t explain what cruelty-free means to them.

If you find out that one of your favorite brands is not certified by PETA, Leaping Bunny or CCF, I would definitely reach out to let them know animal testing is on your radar!

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