Are your soaps, shampoos, body lotions and cosmetics derived from animal products? India’s recently elected Hindu nationalist government believes the country’s 1.2bn consumers – many of whom are vegetarians – have a right to know.
Within weeks of taking power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered multinational companies such as Hindustan Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and L’Oréal, as well as their local Indian subsidiaries, to label products to indicate whether they were derived from animal products or from vegetables etc.
This has ruined India’s $6bn personal care and cosmetics industry sector, which, through the Indian Beauty and Hygiene Association, has filed a complaint in the Bombay High Court.
In their lawsuit, the group argued the government failed to consult the cosmetics industry before issuing the new rules which may damage the industry on permanent basis. An industry spokesman said the requirement would be difficult to probe and costly to comply with, requiring detailed audits of their supply chain thus making the end-products less competitive in the local and international markets.
The Bombay High Court gave the industry some extension, ordering New Delhi not to take any “coercive action” against companies that fail to comply with the labeling rules until the issue is resolved.
The dispute highlights the pressure on Mr Modi by the fundamentalist Hindus., who had promised to make doing business in India easier yet also needs to placate his most ideological conservative supporters, many of them upper caste Hindus, and strict vegetarians.
All companies selling packaged food in India are already required to use “green dot” and “red dot” labels to indicate whether their products are vegetarian, which can include milk or dairy products, or, in that inimitable Indian phrase, “non-vegetarian”.
Animal rights activists and conservative Hindu groups have long sought similar requirements on cosmetics industry and personal care products. Cosmetics often include a wide range of animal-derived products, such as beeswax, lanolin, animal fats and oils, and carmine, a red pigment derived from crushed cochineal insect.
In 2002, the Delhi High Court – acting in a public interest a legal suite filed by an associate of Maneka Gandhi, ex daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi- a leading animal rights activist and member of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party – ordered that cosmetics and personal care products be labelled vegetarian or non-vegetarian on all packaged foods.
In its ruling, the court said consumers had a “fundamental right” to get information that would allow them to act in consonance with their religious beliefs.
The fast-moving consumer goods industry in India appealed, arguing that questions of “vegetarian” or “non-vegetarian” did not arise, since make-up, soaps and shampoos are not meant to be eaten.
After a 10 year long legal battle, the contestant companies thought they had finally won their case in 2013 when the Supreme Court overturned the high court ruling, saying the court had no authority to order such a ruling, and only the appropriate government authorities could amend the rules.
Mr Modi’s administration, with an eye on its large conservative Hindu constituency, has moved to do just that, requiring that any package containing “soap, shampoo, toothpastes, cosmetics and toiletries” should display the red or brown dots for non-vegetarian products. However, the question is whether the Modi administration will be able to face the pressure exerted by the mnufacturers and exporters of the cosmetics and beauty care industries.