Some years ago, when I learned that The Body Shop had a large vegan range (it is now claiming to transition to fully vegan), I made my first visit. At the time, none of the products were labeled vegan (and this is mostly still the case as of this writing in 2023). To discern which items are vegan, I had to ask the sales clerk for assistance. While he was searching for the store’s list of vegan inventory through a cumbersome and bulky folder, he informed me (perhaps to spare us both the hassle) that most of the products were vegan and those that were not vegan were nonetheless produced in ways that “don’t harm the animals.”
I was quick to clarify that all commercial animal use involves harm. The animals used for ingredients in Body Shop products invariably live in some kind of confinement and eventually end up slaughtered. Even bees suffer considerably in the procurement of their wax, jelly, and honey. Annoyed by the misleading sales pitch, I also mentioned cynically: “That’s the same thing LUSH says,” (LUSH also profits from a cruelty-free brand image despite not being fully vegan). I did clarify, however, that The Body Shop was probably a better alternative because of LUSH’s deeply disturbing and wholly problematic misogynistic sales tactics.
Afterward, I sent a tweet to The Body Shop, expressing my concern that the clerk had so blatantly misinformed me regarding their ingredient sourcing. The company only doubled down on its misinformation:
The Body Shop @thebodyshopusa
@CoreyLeeWrenn Hi Corey, maybe it was a misunderstanding but non [sic] of our products harm the animals
Is there any misunderstanding about the violence that happens to the sheep used to produce the lanolin in their products? Is there any misunderstanding about the veal calves languishing in crates and their mothers suffering a miserable end in slaughterhouses in order to obtain milk derivatives for their products? Is there any misunderstanding about the mass killing of bees required to obtain their products?
The Body Shop, like LUSH, markets itself as a compassionate company while simultaneously profiting from the institutionalized exploitation and killing of Nonhuman Animals. Declaring to customers that non-vegan animal-based products “don’t harm the animals” is false advertising of the worst kind. As is the case with most capitalist enterprises that profit from the oppressed, The Body Shop banks on customers never questioning or thinking critically about their ethical claimsmaking. This false consciousness is buttressed by “cruelty-free” labeling and endorsement from large “animal rights” non-profits such as PETA. These charities have effectively socialized many customers that is okay to use, harm, and kill other animals as long as it is done “nicely.”
Pseudo-vegan “natural” companies that cater to socially and environmentally conscious customers are fetishizing “animal-friendliness” to artificially meet the demand for ethical products. Continuing to rely on animal products is likely cheaper (or at least easier) in a cosmetic industry locked in a path of dependency on non-vegan ingredients and processes. In this way, The Body Shop, Aveda, and LUSH are not really much different from Tyson, Smithfield, or whatever else PETA and the HSUS are championing for astounding “progress” for Nonhuman Animals. When the Body Shop clerk insisted to me that their non-vegan products “don’t hurt the animals,” I was reminded of Tyson commercials featuring healthy, free-roaming chickens scampering around a dedicated “farmer” who proclaims how happy these chickens are on their vegetarian, hormone-free diets.
I am skeptical that we can buy our way to social justice. We have to buy our toiletries and cosmetics somewhere, so, obviously, we should aim to purchase from companies that prioritize ethical sourcing in balance with what we can access and afford. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that savvy vegan shopping will end oppression. These products are important to help us maintain our vegan lifestyle, but it would be a mistake to expect a radical revolution within the capitalist system. The capitalist system is designed to facilitate and feed on exploitation. Capitalism cannot exist without exploitation. Indeed, there is no “ethical consumption under capitalism,” as the saying goes. Veganism must therefore entail a wider political resistance to the capitalist economic system.