Some Thoughts on NARS and "Cruelty-Free" Beauty

Last month, NARS shocked many of its customers by announcing that it was expanding into China, whose government requires animal testing on all imported beauty products. Like most successful smaller beauty brands, NARS is already owned by a larger, non-CF brand (Shiseido, in NARS’ case), but it has not allowed such testing on its own products since its founding in 1994. Now that’s about to change, and quite a few NARS loyalists are upset, including prominent cruelty-free bloggers and YouTubers like Killer Colours and JKissa. I’m far from a prominent blogger, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss my views on NARS and the larger debate over cruelty-free beauty.

NARS x Guy Bourdin, Holiday 2013 (source).

First, a little about my current stance. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that while I strongly favor cruelty-free brands, I’m not exclusively cruelty-free. This accords with my views on meat-eating: I’m mostly vegetarian, and about half of my meals are vegan, but I eat meat or fish maybe twice a month. I also wear leather shoes, in part because I have fucked-up ballet feet that don’t do well with synthetic material. When it comes to makeup, my big purchases are almost exclusively cruelty-free; the only exception is the occasional MAC lipstick. If I’m going to spend $30 on a lipstick, though, I’ll patronize a brand that doesn’t test on animals. As a result, I never buy makeup from designer brands like Chanel or Dior. For drugstore makeup, though, I’m a bit more lax. When I need a specific cheap makeup item, I check out the CF drugstore brands first, but I simply don’t have access to many of those. I also feel less guilty spending $7 on a Maybelline lipstick than I would spending $37 on a Chanel lipstick. Irrational, I know.

NARS x Sarah Moon, Holiday 2016 (source).

My opinions on skincare are slightly more complicated. Again, all other things being equal, I favor CF brands. But skincare products either work or they don’t, and I don’t feel too guilty about favoring a non-CF product that plays well with my skin over a CF one that breaks me out (looking at you, Lush). Also, in my experience, cruelty-free skincare is a lot more expensive and elusive than cruelty-free makeup. I was recently in Sephora to look for an oil cleanser, and I couldn’t find one that was both cruelty-free and affordable for me. (For the record, I ended up with the Caudalie Make-Up Removing Cleansing Oil, which is working perfectly so far. More on that in a future post.)

There’s also the unfortunate reality that the deeper you look into any brand, within the beauty industry or outside it, the more ethical issues you’ll uncover. That’s just how capitalism works, and it’s up to every consumer to decide what she finds too problematic to support. Sitting here right now, scouring my brain and browser history, I can’t think of a single beauty brand that 1) lives up to all my ethical standards and 2) makes products I actually like. Many of the brands that advertise their CF status are problematic in other ways. Jeffree Star, Kat Von D, and Lime Crime are headed by deeply objectionable people. Marc Jacobs had that cringetastic dreadlocks scandal last year. Glossier…is Glossier. Some CF brands produce limited shade ranges that exclude many people of color. Indie makeup has its own universe of interpersonal drama. Personally, I choose not to support the first three brands I listed: I’d rather give my money to a non-CF brand than to Jeffree Star’s Chanel-boomerang fund. Other people make different calculations. Some of my favorite beauty bloggers love Kat Von D; some love designer brands; some love indies. I don’t judge them for those choices, and I hope they don’t judge me for mine.

NARS x Steven Klein, Holiday 2015 (source).

It should also be noted that many small brands are cruelty-free because they don’t innovate: they’re using formulas and ingredients developed by larger, non-CF brands. The phrase “cruelty-free” is an effective rhetorical tool, but follow any brand far enough back in the production timeline and you’ll uncover some form of cruelty to either animals or humans. Which is not to say that we should all throw up our hands and stop supporting CF brands: individual consumers can make a difference, as they did a few years ago when they forced Urban Decay not to expand into China. However, I think this issue is more complicated than “buy exclusively cruelty-free or you’re a HEARTLESS ANIMAL KILLER.” Like it or not, the real problem lies with the larger system, not with individual brands. Companies aren’t charities: they exist to make money, and if they can make more money, you bet they will.

NARS x Andy Warhol, Holiday 2012 (source).

But am I disappointed in NARS, you ask? Yes, I’m fucking disappointed. For as long as I’ve been passionate about makeup, NARS has been my favorite brand. It’s the only brand I’ve ever loved wholeheartedly as a brand, as an overarching aesthetic vision and not just a collection of products I happen to enjoy. But the products are pretty damned good, too. NARS makes several of my holy grails, such as undereye concealer (Radiant Creamy Concealer in Vanilla), matte red lipstick (Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Mysterious Red), and sheer nude lipstick (Sheer Lipstick in Dolce Vita). I love makeup because I love color, and in my opinion, NARS does color better than any other brand. Year after year, they release shades that are complex and offbeat but sophisticated and wearable. In particular, I have yet to find a brand that produces more beautifully balanced pinks and reds.

Top to bottom: Vanilla, Mysterious Red, Dolce Vita.

I haven’t decided whether I’ll repurchase my holy grails after I run out, but the good news is that inspiration is free. And NARS provides plenty of it, incorporating such eclectic influences as Pop Art, old Hollywood, science fiction, and bondage. So whether or not I give NARS any more of my money (and right now, I’m not inclined to), I can at least follow their releases and appreciate their experiments with color and texture.

What are your thoughts on the NARS controversy and cruelty-free beauty? I know that opinions vary widely within the beauty community, so I’d love to hear yours!

18 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on NARS and "Cruelty-Free" Beauty

  1. The \”cruelty-free\” label does seem like a needlessly loaded term, and one that's not entirely accurate. First, there's enormous potential for human suffering in cosmetics factories; and, besides, it refers only to animal-testing – so brushes made out of real fur, for example, can be labelled cruelty-free even if the means of harvesting the fur is cruel. It's absolutely a rhetorical device that implies that the other side is monstrous. (Similar to \”pro-life\” in that way, I guess.)The further you get into the cosmetics industry, the more ethical issues you'll discover. I have to say I'm relieved to be in the home stretch of my job (less than a month left!), not because I don't enjoy it pretty well but because I've soured to the whole industry. I really enjoy makeup and I love reading beauty blogs, but the corporate side of the industry is either stuck in an outwardly misogynistic past (see Benefit's \”skip class, not concealer\” ad campaign) or commodifying liberal feminist ideals of \”empowerment\” in order to sell their product. It's not that I don't love makeup, but I feel exhausted by the entire cosmetics industry and the rhetoric they use in marketing. The whole thing is unethical and shitty and buying or not buying certain brands isn't going to do much to change it outside of a large, organized boycott. I mean, I'm not saying that it's pointless not to buy from brands whose ideals don't align with yours – I do the same thing, we all do – but people shouldn't fool themselves into thinking it's much more than soothing their own individual consciences. I don't see NARS going under anytime soon regardless of the Western outrage. At the end of the day, they've expanded into a market of ~a billion people. That's smart business that will surely offset the customers they'll lose.(For my own part, I really want the NARS Lesbos lip pencil for obvious reasons. Hahaha.)


  2. In my opinion, the value NARS brought to the cruelty-free movement was from the \”raising awareness\” perspective, in addition to saving a number of animals from testing. It was powerful to have an influential and trendy brand like NARS take an anti-animal testing stance.I am a supporter of the cruelty-free movement, but I understand that it's going to be a long time before all animal testing is replaced by more modern practices. I feel like the cruelty-free movement is valuable not only because it saves some animals, but because it provokes conversations about general animal welfare. I strongly believe that empathy towards the Earth, towards animals will make us a better society in the long run. Even though the movement won't \”save all animals,\” it will still help in cultivating this empathy. As an aside, and I might be the only person who thinks this way–I am not a fan of language like \”it's cruelty-free to animals, but what about cruelty to humans?\” Something in me finds it really cringeworthy, even though I perfectly understand the good intentions of the person who says this. What's cringeworthy to me is mentioning humans (workers) and animals in the same sentence, as if it… ummmm… somehow equates workers with \”poor powerless bunnies.\” I find this language unintentionally demeaning towards workers. I.e., I feel like the language for human rights and animal rights should be fully separate. For cruelty-free oil cleansers, I recommend the Body Shop.


  3. I agree: the real shame is that NARS is giving up a huge platform from which to raise awareness, just as MAC did several years ago. And like you, I don't find the \”what about the humans??\” point particularly convincing, though I may have sounded like I was trying to make a zero-sum argument along those lines. I was just noting that any industry as huge and complicated as the beauty industry will cause some level of suffering somewhere, and it's up to the individual consumer to decide which issue to prioritize. But yes: workers' rights and animal rights are two separate issues and should be treated as such. And thanks for the Body Shop recommendation!


  4. I'm not cruelty-free for a few reasons: one, I dislike the narrow definition and won't label myself as such; two, I have limited access to products in my immediate vicinity and while I do most of my shopping online, I like my oft-purchased staples to be something I can go pick up whenever; and three, consumption is still consumption whether it's cruelty-free or not. I think I can do better by reducing my consumption, something that is an ongoing journey, but something that I continue to strive for every day.All that said, I am vaguely disappointed in NARS, but I think any disappointment I might feel is tempered by my recognition that NARS is a business and its primary goal is to make money. Why should NARS do ethical things when not bound by law? I can't make myself believe in the good of big brands.I don't have a ton of NARS so it probably won't affect my purchasing habits in any way. And unless there's an organized boycott, I doubt NARS will be hurting from this, like you said.


  5. It's like that Flight of the Conchords bit: \”are you pro-AIDS or anti-AIDS?\” No one is \”pro-cruelty,\” just as no one is \”anti-life,\” but the rhetoric can get very heated and misleading.I've contemplated going into the beauty industry if academia doesn't work out, but I do think there's something to be said for not turning one's hobbies into a job. As a consumer and an enthusiastic amateur, I'm spared a lot of the bullshit that goes on behind the scenes, just as someone who reads Shakespeare for fun is spared the cutthroat atmosphere of academia and the agony of the job market. I hope that your next job will allow you to express your beliefs more fully!I totally want the Lesbos pencil, too. I wish it were sold separately…


  6. Come to think of it, I don't own a ton of NARS either. Part of that has to do with the price point, but it's also that I value the brand more for aesthetic inspiration than for actual products. Still, I'm not sure what I'll do without my Radiant Creamy Concealer. I swatched some Tarte Shape Tape in Ulta the other day, but they didn't seem to have a light enough shade for me, so I dunno.And I agree, reducing consumption is also a worthy goal. We're all complicit in SOMETHING as consumers, but the less we consume, the less complicit we are.


  7. Sorry, now that I've reread my comment it looks kind of accusatory (where I mention the cringeworthy part). I want to add that I didn't mean your post specifically, but I see the \”cruelty-free should also include humans\” argument pop up a lot lately, and I wanted to explain why it rubs me the wrong way.


  8. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I am somewhat of a makeup novice and not very informed about the issue, so I really appreciate hearing the perspective of those who keep up more with these developments.I also wanted to say hi because I stumbled upon your blog about a week or two ago and am now following you on Instagram. I had been searching for reviews of Glossier generation g because they sent me a coupon in the mail, and I had been looking for a product like that. Your comparison post with Colourpop came up and was super helpful – I ended up going with their Ultra Blotted Lip in Zuma, and am pretty happy with it. Anyway, I read a bunch more of your posts (love your writing, and your makeup reviews and photos are so helpful!) and gathered that you are a fellow humanities PhD student! Thinking of you with the job search – that'll be me next year :/ gah!


  9. Yep, I'm almost done with my PhD in English! (I specialize in 17th-century literature.) I'm always delighted when fellow grad students discover my blog. And I'm glad my comparison post helped you make a decision; I seem to be in the minority in finding the Blotted Lip formula drying, so it's probably a better Glossier alternative for other people than it is for me.


  10. I think kudos to anyone who wants to be CF but I'm with you on not judging people whether they are or not. For me, it's not a concern/priority at the moment, but I can understand the anger and backlash over NARS's decision. I still really like the brand and I do think that it genuinely makes excellent products. I haven't tried too many of their lip products (really only 2 Satin Lip Pencils), but I have many of their blushes, I love the Radiant Creamy Concealer as well, and Sheer Glow is one of my top 5 foundations though I haven't used it in a couple of years. I guess at the end of the day, NARS was willing to disappoint a portion of their customer base in order to reach a wider international market, and was willing to accept that they'd be accused of caring more about their bottom line than ethical issues.


  11. What bothers me about NARS's decision is that, being an industry leader of a kind, they have the power to set examples for other brands. Lipstick Queen just announced that they're expanding into China, and though I'm sure they've been planning that move since before NARS's announcement, it's hard not to worry that this will become a trend. Ultimately I think consumers can do more by giving their money to CF brands than by boycotting non-CF brands, but the former category seems to be getting smaller and smaller. Honestly, I may well end up repurchasing my NARS concealer or Dolce Vita. But I'll never love the brand as wholeheartedly as I once did.


  12. I think I may be able to suggest an alternative! If you like the creamy coverage of NARS Radiant, give A'Pieu Creamy Moist a try. It comes in some very fair shades. If I understand this correctly – A'Pieu belongs to Missha and South Korea has undergone and will have phased out animal testing completely by next year. Charlotte Cho wrote a blog about it, confirmed with Cruelty Free International:


  13. I love your love/hate of Glossier, first of all 😉 As far as animal cruelty goes, it's just not a huge priority for me. I don't think there's a good or compelling reason to test on animals and I wish more companies didn't, but I don't lose sleep over it. There's so much human suffering in the world that I focus my attention there, and honestly. No shade to people who are more active in avoiding animal testing, and I'm glad there are more and more companies out there that avoid it, but it's a nice-to-have and not a must-have for me.


  14. I feel a way about how weird and racist the backlash against the idea of a CF company expanding into China tends to be. Not saying that you’ve played into any of the range of tropes but the whole debate does give me gross feelings when the beauty consumer market seems to fundamentally care more about animal rights than human ones. I’m not saying that we can’t care about more than one thing at a time but there’s a reason there’s an animal testing and it’s because Chinese people live under an autocratic government that many have described as fascist that both doesn’t represent the people and also is lax on manufacturing regulation while being uber protectionist of local industry. I’m just feeling really tired of personal politics existing unmoored from systematic realities.


  15. Thank you for this valuable reminder! I've certainly noticed some racist assumptions and rhetoric in discussions of Chinese government regulations. That's one of the reasons why, even though I do try to buy cosmetics that haven't been tested on animals, I'm not going to get all self-righteous about it or condemn others who don't make my choices. I'm under no illusion that my purchasing decisions exist in a vacuum or represent anything but my personal preferences.


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