This Thursday was World Animal Day and I was at the United Nations in New York to hand over a petition calling for a worldwide end to cosmetics tested on animals.
Organised by Cruelty Free International and the Body Shop, the eight million people who signed the petition came from across the globe. It was amassed in just 15 months and is the biggest animal-related petition in history. Nearly 900,000 people signed the petition in the UK, cementing our reputation as a nation of animal lovers and leaders in the campaign for better animal welfare.
In the long struggle to achieve a cosmetics market free from animal cruelty, Britain has been a leading player. We were an early adopter of a ban in our country in 1998, under a Labour Government, and a key voice to get the eventual full pan-European ban.
This year, 2018, marks the fifth anniversary of the full implementation of the EU animal testing ban for cosmetics. Speaking at the UN I said that I am pleased to be there as someone who is both British and European and who is happy to live in a part of the world which no longer has cosmetics tested on animals.
I called for UN action for the other 80% of the world, which still has no laws banning animal tests for cosmetic products and ingredients. I said that our European ban means that many of the myths about the consequences of a ban have been dispelled. We have tested it, our products in Europe are safe and manufacturers ensure that the products and their ingredients undergo scientific assessments to prove it.
The science continues to move apace and there are far more alternatives than when Europe first started talking about a ban. Everything from better computer modelling to synthetic skin has pushed the issue forward in recent years. There are plenty of cruelty free products on the shelves and there have not been mass bankruptcies in the cosmetic industry. In short, it works. If it can be done in some countries without issue why not others?
One of the great strengths of the European wide ban, was that at a stroke of a pen 28 nations simultaneously and collectively took action – some who were trailblazers like Britain and were desperately concerned about the issue, and others less so.
My fear is that Brexit will inhibit our ability to be a leading nation, a nation that can start a ripple of change from the concerns of our own people and then turn it into a wave of agreement across Europe, which washes on to the shores of the rest of the world. We have recently seen the 100,000 strong “Ban the sale of animal fur in the UK” petition in the House of Commons and some have argued that Brexit is a great opportunity to improve animal welfare in a Britain unencumbered by Brussels.
Yet I would argue that rather than being a positive influence on animal welfare, Brexit will mean a decline in British influence. The fur farms that our animal loving nation want banned are not in Britain, but abroad. It is 18 years since the UK Parliament banned fur farming in England and Wales. In and of itself this was undeniably a good thing but, in effect, the problem was then outsourced to other countries where the cruel trade continues.
These countries do not fear a more isolated and weaker Britain. Sirpa Pietikäinen, the President of the European Parliament Animal Welfare intergroup, warns us that piecemeal reforms from individual countries going it alone achieve far less than a regional reform covering the whole European Union. Crucially Brexit will mean the voices and votes of Britons will not now help improve conditions for animals across the rest of Europe, let alone the rest of the world.
Similarly if we are to tackle puppy farms and smuggling from Eastern Europe, or the killing of migratory birds and the deterioration of our oceans, we need to work internationally. Like most major issues, transnational problems require international solutions.
Brexit will not end the British people’s compassion, nor our citizens increasing desire to live more ethical and sustainable lives. It will not stop us working with the United Nations for international agreements. However, it will diminish our influence. So to end cosmetics animal testing everywhere and forever and to improve countless other animal welfare issues, we will have to re-double our efforts as a national of animal lovers.
This article first appeared in Left Foot Forward on 5th October 2018