Gillette's War On Animals
It was just another day for the workers shuffling into Gillette world headquarters in Boston on that sunny July morning. Computers hummed, coffee perked, mail was delivered. But when 600 of the company faithful checked their voice-mail messages, they heard an unforgettable wake-up call. "We still need your help to push Gillette to join the 550 other companies who make cosmetics, office supplies, and other products without pouring them down animals' throats or into animals' eyes," a familiar voice chided. Had it been your run-of-the-mill animal-rights activist lipping the same admonishments the cosmetic giant has fended off for the last decade, Gillette workers might not have thought twice about it. Message erased; time to make the razors. But how often do you get a call from Paul McCartney? How could you ignore a message from a Beatle, for God's sake? As a political stunt, the monkeyshine orchestrated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would have made Abbie Hoffman proud. But more than that, it was a savvy piece of psychological warfare aimed at riling Gillette's upper brass. In the home-recorded message, delivered by PETA with the help of a computerized dialing machine, McCartney also made sure he tweaked Gillette executives by alluding to subversion among their ranks. "[S]ome of you have felt so strongly that what Gillette does to animals is wrong that you have risked your job," McCartney said. "Without you, we would never have known all the Gillette meeting dates, received copies of important memos, and even been given this phone list." The stunt grabbed headlines across the country. There was McCartney's ever-so-cute face in the Miami Herald; and there was a faceless Gillette corporate spokesperson suggesting that the man who penned "Yesterday" was seriously misinformed. Who's going to win that argument? And so it goes for Gillette. Ever since a former lab technician rocked the company in 1986 by going public with gruesome tales and film of rabbits with their skin peeled raw and blistered with ingredients for dandruff shampoo, the company's defensive strategy has been to assail and intimidate its detractors. Celebrity protests -- be they from McCartney, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, or Chrissie Hynde -- are disregarded with the same myopic mindset: no animal-rights wackos are going to dictate corporate policy. Indeed, Gillette continues to insist that the thousands of animals it maims is justified, and that animal-rights supporters are clueless about, as company spokeswoman Danielle Frizzi puts it, "what is required in order to produce a new and innovative product." A generation ago, that patronizing indignation might have served the company well. But what Gillette fails to recognize is that the battle over animal rights today won't be won by a corporation sticking to its guns and outlasting its opponent. The issue has become, in essence, a morality play for the MTV era, in which emotion and public perception are paramount in winning the hearts, and ultimately the minds, of the buying public. Outflanked by its media-savvy opponents, Gillette is also the victim of its own ill-conceived strategy for dealing with its detractors and their concerns. An inquiry into Gillette's practices reveals that the company * hires private investigators to intimidate animal-rights proponents and has called a high-school principal, threatening arrest, to dissuade student protesters; * disingenuously claims that federal safety laws require it to conduct animal tests, and has attempted to cover up the types of tests it conducts and the products they are used for; * touts its commitment to alternative tests, but rejects methods already in use by other companies, and doles out comparatively little money for further research. These are the tactics of a company destined to lose the war over animal rights. And because it underestimates the public's increasing intolerance of sacrificing animals in the name of sales and vanity, Gillette may also lose a significant chunk of its next generation of customers. Consider this: the number of people belonging to animal-protection organizations in the US has grown from about 1.5 million in the late 1970s to about 10 million today, according to Dr. Andrew Rowan, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University. Even more telling, Rowan adds, is that "an enormous" 22 percent of Americans say they've sent money to animal-protection organizations. PETA's exponential growth parallels the rest of the movement, testimony to the public's preference for radical action on the animal-rights front. What started as a 100-member group in 1980 has become a five million-member worldwide operation with a $10 million annual budget. No longer can PETA's targets dismiss it as an irrelevant fringe group that can push its agenda only by spattering blood-red paint on fur-wearers or dressing up in bunny costumes. And now, as PETA showed late last month during a carefully orchestrated day of international action against Gillette in the US, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and other countries, it's clear that Gillette's bunker mentality has succeeded only in making it the perfect target for activists. "The fact that Gillette is a multinational corporation cuts both ways," says Gary Francione, a former Wall Street lawyer who now teaches at Rutgers Law School. He is also the author of Animals, Property and the Law (Temple University Press, 1995). "It gives it enormous economic power. But on the other hand, because it exists in many places across the world, all of those places are potentially raw nerves exposed to PETA's irritation and campaigning. They are playing right into PETA's hands. PETA has done this for a long time, and I will tell you now, they will win this."HIDE NOR HARE In recent years, scores of powerful companies like Gillette have brushed aside the concerns of animal-rights activists, underestimating their persuasive abilities. But after persistent public protests, provocative ads, guerrilla pranks, and schoolchildren's letter-writing campaigns, many corporations have decided they'd rather switch than fight, and have pledged their allegiance to animal-free testing. "PETA has made us look at ourselves, at our products, and at our entire industry in a totally different way," says Ken Landis, managing director of Benetton Cosmetics Company. "We did a lot of research and found that we still can create new and exciting and innovative products without animal testing." Indeed, whether they've been persuaded by activists' less-than-gentle methods, or by public-opinion polls showing that consumers prefer cosmetics and personal-care products that aren't tested on animals, some of the world's largest manufacturers of such products have agreed to stop animal testing. Among them: some of Gillette's biggest competitors, including Avon, Revlon, Faberge, Estee Lauder, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and Amway. "They may have deeper pockets, but we have longer legs," says Dan Matthews, director of international campaigns for PETA, speaking outside Boston Municipal Court after appearing there on a charge of trespassing at Gillette's corporate offices in the Prudential Tower. "It always ends with the company saying they've made a miraculous breakthrough that doesn't require animal testing." Part of the move toward non-animal testing can also be credited to the advent of alternative tests, such as cloned human skin cultures and tissues to test potential irritation from new products and ingredients. An in vitro process known as Eytex, for example, is being used to test whether a cosmetic or chemical will damage the eye. It is replacing the notorious and once widely used Draize test, a particularly cruel procedure that consists of pulling forward a rabbit's eyelid and dropping or smearing suspected irritants into the eye. The rabbits are commonly held in stocks for the duration of the test, which can last up to three days. Despite independent studies by S.C. Johnson and Avon that show Eytex not only to cost less, but to be at least as effective as the Draize test, Draize remains one of at least seven types of animal tests Gillette continues to use. Company officials contend the test is necessary to protect the health and safety of their customers, and that no reliable substitute exists. To defend their position, they point to a statement supporting the Draize test -- but not mandating its use -- issued by the FDA in 1989, when many alternative tests were just beginning to gain industry acceptance. By law, the FDA does not have the authority to require pre-market testing for cosmetics. Nor does it have the authority to demand access to test results, according to Dr. John Bailey, director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors. "There is no requirement that a cosmetic company demonstrate that their product is safe before marketing," he says. "It's each individual company's responsibility to set up whatever procedures are appropriate. On the other hand, we also say it's illegal to market harmful products." Federal regulators are just beginning to develop opinions on the efficacy of some of the alternative tests, Bailey says. The Eytex tests, he says, "have turned out to be good screening tools for certain types of compounds." Bailey hastens to note that in any toxicology test, be it the Draize or its alternatives, "The only true measure is in the target organism you are interested in." And as the research community assesses decades worth of results from the Draize test, many respected scientists, including Dr. Ruy Tchao, associate professor of pathology at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, are now concluding that the test is not a good indicator of product safety in humans. They, like the companies that have abandoned the test, are convinced that alternative methods, combined with existing data, computer modeling, and a prudent dose of scientific judgment, make the Draize and other animal tests obsolete. That's particularly true for the kinds of products Gillette sells, says Dr. Beverly Greenwold, a physician at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, in West Roxbury, MA and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. "There is no possible excuse for it [animal testing] in cosmetic or personal-care products," she says. "A lot of the animal testing done is inhumane and irrelevant and misleading. It ends up wasting a lot of research money on research techniques that are invalid for humans."IF LOOKS COULD KILL Animal-rights proponents have different ethical thresholds. Though PETA opposes animal testing under any circumstances, many animal sympathizers (some of whom are highly critical of PETA) make a distinction between animal testing for AIDS or cancer research and animal testing to make humans smell better. But they all agree that no one is actually dying for a new antiperspirant or shampoo. "It's not like there's an epidemic of dandruff," says Peter Wood, a PETA anti-Gillette coordinator who was arrested with Matthews outside of Gillette headquarters in July. "For Gillette to claim the higher ground and say they are protecting consumers and children is pure poppycock."eeFurthermore, Gillette's claims of having consumer health and safety in mind could easily backfire. Consumers, says Rowan at Tufts, have strong opinions about when animal testing is justified. "If you have high suffering with low benefits, then the public isn't going to accept it," he says. "And where the animal-activist community can show high suffering and low benefits, they're going to win." While US regulators are decidedly ambivalent about animal testing for cosmetics, their counterparts in Europe have weighed in with a force that belies Gillette's claims that animal testing is done for the good of the consumer. In fact, the European Community health and consumer-affairs ministers have agreed to ban the use of animals in cosmetics testing, starting in 1998. In the corporate world, money speaks louder than protesters. And undoubtedly mindful of the $2.1 billion in Western European sales it racked up last year alone, Gillette has begun to try to demonstrate that it, too, is moving with the trend toward non-animal testing. It boasts in its public-relations package that in the last five years it has donated a total of about $4 million to fund research for "adjunct methodologies." (By comparison, Gillette competitor Proctor & Gamble spends that amount each year.) Company officials decline to say exactly how much of that money is going where, other than to say some is going to its own in vitro alternative to the Draize test. That alternative, Gillette spokeswoman Frizzi says, won't be ready to replace the Draize test for "many years." One animal test Gillette says it has stopped using altogether is LD50, or "lethal dose 50." Even by animal-testing standards, this was a particularly barbarous test: scientists forced rabbits and rats to inhale or ingest substances to determine their lethal doses. The Humane Society was particularly outspoken in its opposition to the test, which often caused paralysis, tremors, convulsions, comas, and bleeding from the eyes, nose, or mouth. By 1985, animal-rights activists were condemning Gillette and other companies for using LD50. But rather than stopping the practice immediately, Gillette decided that covering it up would be sufficient. In the confidential minutes of a meeting at a Gillette lab in Maryland, company scientists "raised the issue of modifying internal documentation and other communication vehicles to eliminate references to the use of the term LD50 .Ê.Ê. the Company is responding to animal rights activists saying Gillette no longer employs the use of the subject test." Gillette's claims of progress are undermined by its ongoing attempts to mislead the public about its practices. And it's hardly surprising that activists look skeptically upon Gillette's boast of a "significant milestone" in 1994: the first year it says no animal tests were used for cosmetic products.RAZOR'S EDGE That claim may be true, but it relies on a narrow legal usage of the term "cosmetics" -- which excludes the many Gillette products classified as over-the-counter drugs or as non-medical consumer products. Company records show Gillette did conduct tests of so-called over-the-counter drugs and non-medical consumer products that year -- and those tests involved 2364 animals, virtually the same as in each of the past seven years. (The most recent records available show that the number peaked at 4953 in 1986 and dipped to 1302 the next year.) Because company officials won't disclose which brand-name products and ingredients are tested on animals, it's difficult to gauge how accurate Gillette's claims are. "We don't break out our products that way," says Frizzi. "We choose not to. Some of it is proprietary in nature." By making the claim that the large majority of its animal tests are for "biological research on drugs," the company would seem to be indicating that it is using the animals for scientific breakthroughs that could save lives. Not so. When pressed, Frizzi says that Gillette's Oral B toothpaste is an example of an over-the-counter drug for which animal testing is expressly required by federal law. Gillette's Oral B toothpaste, and other personal-care products (antiperspirants, anti-dandruff shampoo), is indeed classified by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug because it contains active ingredients that change the body's chemistry. But not all over-the-counter drugs require new animal testing, according to FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan. "The FDA has a list of acceptable ingredients for various categories of over-the-counter drugs that don't require new animal testing because they've already been established to be safe and effective," she says. The fact is, Gillette chooses to use new ingredients, or new combinations of ingredients, instead of relying on ones with proven track records. Unlike Gillette's Oral B toothpaste, Tom's of Maine fluoride toothpaste, recently given the American Dental Association's seal of approval, is made without the use of new animal testing. ("We are looking into that," Frizzi says.) Redken, Nexxus, Paul Mitchell, Neutrogena, and a slew of other companies also use no new ingredients that require animal testing in their antiperspirants and shampoos. Gillette also contends that the US Consumer Product Safety Commission "expressly" requires it to test animals to determine if household products, such as Liquid Paper, should be labeled as harmful or fatal if swallowed. On the contrary, a 1984 commission policy statement reads: "[I]t is important to keep in mind that neither the [Federal Hazardous Substance Act] nor the commission's regulations require any firm to perform animal tests .Ê.Ê. While animal testing may be necessary in some cases, commission policy supports limiting such tests to the lowest feasible number and taking every feasible step to eliminate or reduce the pain or discomfort that can be associated with such tests." How necessary is Gillette's animal testing for Liquid Paper? Ask Scott Tallman, vice-president of Richmond-based Evans International, the maker of Planet Pleaser correctional fluid. "We don't find it necessary at all to test on animals," he says, noting that the ingredients the company uses are even recyclable. "Consumers have responded," he adds. "We've won contracts from 19 state governments, and sales have been phenomenal with the average consumer. We can hardly keep up with it." (For the record, White Out correctional fluid is also made without the help of new animal tests. But since the product's parent company, Bic, continues testing other products on animals, activists are less inclined to endorse it.)OVERKILL Beneath Gillette's reasoned, scientific veneer is a company that is as intemperate as it is indignant, and doesn't think twice about strong-arming detractors. Take, for instance, the events following a PETA demonstration late last month at Gillette headquarters. During that demonstration, four PETA activists (two from Great Britain) were arrested and dragged away in handcuffs for trespassing during the demonstration. With street theater still a PETA publicity mainstay, the activists had counted on being arrested. But what they didn't expect was that, long after the protest was over, they would be tailed by a private investigator who, with other investigators, conspicuously followed a van driven by PETA activist Peter Wood. The car is registered to Paul Nalezienski, an investigator for Charlestown-based Niles Investigation. He could not be reached for comment. Gillette officials also declined to offer an explanation. "Gillette's attempt to intimidate us into silence will not work," Wood says of Gillette's corporate espionage. "They could hire a hundred investigators to follow us around town and we will not stop. It would be wiser for Gillette to invest their time and money into moving into the 21st century and ending animal tests." Hiring private investigators, says Tufts's Rowan, is just plain bad public-relations strategy. Not only does it strengthen the resolve of animal-rights activists, but, he says, "it confirms all the worst conspiracy theories.Ê.Ê.Ê. If they are doing it, they really must have something to hide. It just backfires." It wasn't the first time this year that Gillette has attempted to bully opponents. Last January, Gillette discovered that more than a dozen students from Newton North High School were planning to join a protest at Gillette headquarters the next day. A Gillette official called the school principal and warned him that the students were risking arrest. The principal informed the students' parents, and, as a result, none of them attended the protest. Frizzi, who refers to young students as "our consumers of tomorrow," maintains that the company simply had the youths' best interests in mind. "I don't think young kids need to start out with a police record," she says.OF MICE AND MEN Beyond protecting an already bruised image, why would a multinational, multi-billion-dollar corporation commit so many resources to defend its right to suffocate rats with aerosol spray? Here's where the lawyers come in. Mindful of potentially crippling damage awards in consumer-product liability suits, cautious lawyers from large companies like Gillette have traditionally been unwilling to let a product go to market without the shield of animal testing as evidence the product was pre-tested and safe for use. Ostensibly, a company could point to a series of animal tests to demonstrate that it did everything it could to ensure that the product it put on the market was safe. If animal testing was not used, they theorize, plaintiffs could claim a disregard for consumer health and safety. On the other hand, those same plaintiffs would also have substantial scientific support to demonstrate that animal testing still offers little assurance that a product is safe. Indeed, potentially harmful products will make it to the marketplace regardless of what kind of testing is done. In 1994, for example, the American Association of Poison Control Centers' Toxic Exposure Surveillance System recorded 162,807 "human poison exposures" -- from incidental contact to serious cases of poisoning -- for cosmetics and personal-care products. That was nearly 10 percent of all cases reported for all categories of substances. Those figures, although they don't distinguish between products tested on animals and those that haven't been, cast doubt on claims that animal testing adds to consumer safety, according to the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "Instead of keeping dangerous products out of consumers' hands, these [animal] tests are part of a rubber-stamping process by which companies can introduce potentially toxic products to the market." Hundreds of other companies now feel legally confident enough to forgo animal testing, a confidence that is perhaps bolstered by the fact that there are relatively few product-liability cases concerning cosmetics and personal-care products, and fewer still that have hinged on animal testing. Nevertheless, Gillette is evidently clinging to the notion that such tests are its best legal recourse. Certainly from the perspective of Gillette lawyers, spending a few million dollars on alternative-testing research, public-relations specialists, and private investigators is a bargain compared to the amount the company would theoretically have to dole out if it lost just one major product-liability suit. (Tobacco companies know that all too well.) While acknowledging that product liability is a consideration in using animal testing -- and at the same time declining to provide this writer with the number of product-liability suits filed against Gillette -- Frizzi maintains that Gillette's tests are intended more to protect consumers than to protect the company. "We certainly would never put an employee or consumer at risk by putting out an unsafe product," she says. Francione, the Rutgers Law professor, scoffs at Gillette's rationale. "It's unclear to me why Gillette is taking some sort of principled position in favor of animal testing. This is mystifying," he says. "It's a business issue, and they're behaving like it's a moral issue. "A corporation looks at the level of safety it wants to purchase based in large part on what it has to pay if it loses lawsuits." he says. "If they're not worried about lawsuits, then this position represents both an ill-informed business judgment and an unrealistic moral position concerning the justification for animal use. I repeat again, this is a battle PETA must win."