Popstar Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty opened a store on Alibaba’s Tmall Global platform on Thursday © Getty

Western cosmetics companies are using China’s ecommerce platforms to bypass Beijing’s requirement that their products be tested on animals, with pop star Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty the latest to take advantage of an easing of restrictions.

Make-up must be tested on animals in government laboratories to be approved for sale in China. While big foreign brands such as L’Oréal, Estee Lauder, and Procter & Gamble have complied with the rules, other companies have chosen to avoid the Chinese market.

But since 2016 Beijing has permitted platforms run by ecommerce companies such as Alibaba and JD.com to allow consumers buy cosmetics direct from overseas, avoiding some inspection requirements including the animal testing regulations.

The platforms store goods in dedicated “free trade zones” before shipping them to consumers, with $23bn in products sold this way last year, according to consultancy iResearch.

That has encouraged brands that oppose animal tests to sell in China. “Lots of cruelty-free brands have entered the Chinese market through cross-border ecommerce,” said Winne Xu, an analyst at consultancy ChemLinked.

“The necessity to produce Chinese labels and toxicology test reports can all be avoided”.  Sales of skincare products in China reached Rmb212bn ($29.8bn) in 2018, up 13 per cent from the previous year, according to consultancy Euromonitor.

Fenty Beauty, launched in 2017 by Barbadian singer, businesswoman and actress Rihanna in partnership with LVMH, opened a store on Alibaba’s Tmall Global platform on Tuesday. The brand said the move made its products “even more accessible to its digitally savvy Chinese consumers while staying true to its 100 per cent cruelty-free commitment”.

Beijing has promoted cross-border ecommerce as an alternative to the widespread practice of daigou, in which consumer goods are imported by “personal shoppers” who generally do not pay import or sales taxes when they bring products into China.

Alibaba announced on Friday it had acquired rival cross-border ecommerce platform Kaola for $2bn from tech company NetEase. That will give it a 52 per cent share of the market, according to investment bank Jefferies, ahead of its main rival JD.com.

US cosmetics brand Jane Iredale, which was acquired by private equity firm San Francisco Equity Partners this year, launched a store on Tmall Global last month. It expects China to become its top market outside the US within three years. 

“We had wanted to bring make-up to women in China but because we are a very animal-friendly company it was always something that we couldn’t do ethically,” said Theresa Robison, the brand’s head of global development. “The advent of cross-border selling has really made it feasible for us.” 

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