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Is it ethical to continue buying beauty dupes in 2019?

TextLouise WhitbreadIllustrationCallum Abbott

Sites like Dupethat offers affordable alternatives for those on tight budgets, but their legality has recently become a talking point

Beauty dupes have long existed in the cosmetic industry. For every well-known and loved product, there’s a cheaper alternative offered for budget-conscious shoppers. While dupe is often used with connotations of deception, in the beauty sphere, it’s celebrated as a cost-saving option for customers. Platforms such as Dupethat, which reviews and swatches affordable dupes to its 1.2m followers, and Temptalia, which describes itself as a global reference and resource for beauty enthusiasts appear to cement our appetite for them. But are they ethical, and more importantly, are they legal?

In August this year, Charlotte Tilbury won a lawsuit against Aldi, as a high court judge deemed “substantial” similarities between Tilbury’s copyrighted packaging on her Filmstar Bronze and Glow palette (£69) and Aldi’s Lacura Broadway Shape and Glow Palette (£6.99) which was part of its revamped beauty range Lacura. Aldi is a repeat offender in the realm of beauty dupes, with nearly all of its products in its in-house beauty range resembling existing premium products with few legal consequences. In fact, it was reported that Aldi’s beauty sales saw an increase of 14.1 per cent in 2018 alone.

The success of Charlotte Tilbury is rare in dupe culture, with other cases like Pixi Glow Tonic v Superdrug or Makeup Revolution v Ben Nye never seeing any legal proceedings. The legal framework in the UK is weak by international standards and government cuts means a lack of resources are available for both brands and the legal process.

Demonstrating consumer confusion, i.e. showing that Aldi suggested its palette would perform to the same standard, is particularly difficult to do to the satisfaction of courts too. According to Julie Zerbo, founder of The Fashion Law however, social media and e-commerce are helping companies uncover potential evidence for examples of confusion. “We quite often see companies putting screenshots, comments, and product reviews on social media with their legal filing,” she says.  

John Noble, director of the British Brands Group explains that the reason Tilbury emerged victorious was the misleading nature of Aldi’s copycat product. “Even though consumers know it’s not the same product, the way the packaging is presented to you is a signal telling you that it’s essentially the same as Charlotte Tilbury. It encourages shoppers to buy that product more than if it was distinctly packaged,” he explains. “(The palette) is trading off Charlotte Tilbury’s reputation, and not only is the shopper being duped by the packaging subconsciously, but it is also being suggested that this is the same quality as the Charlotte Tilbury’s product when it isn’t.” When contacted for comment, Aldi said of the lawsuit, “This matter relates to a product that was on sale for a very short period around December 2018. The dispute has since been fully resolved.”

“With countless articles from beauty publications championing dupes further, these products are presented to consumers without questioning the often illegal and unethical side to them”

While the lawsuit demonstrated that legal ramifications do exist for companies like Aldi whose entire business model is built of ‘duping’ existing products, it means little for the industry at large, which is rife with copycat products. Makeup Revolution is another repeat offender; with its Luxury Banana Powder that’s eerily similar to Ben Nye’s Banana Powder – made famous when the ‘baking’ trend emerged. Its eyeshadow palette is a replica of Huda Beauty’s Rose Gold edition, and its Jewel Collection Jelly Highlighter also raised eyebrows for its comparison to Farsali’s Jelly Beam Highlighter. W7, a high street trend-led make-up brand is also behind the 12-shade eyeshadow palettes which are widely recognised by consumers as a dupe to Urban Decay’s cult Naked Palette. 

“Media coverage, even if negative, adds a level of legitimacy to beauty dupes too,” says Nick Gadsby, Commercial Semiotician and Anthropologist. With countless articles from beauty publications championing dupes further, these products are presented to consumers without questioning the often illegal and unethical side to them.

For some beauty consumers, their decision to buy dupes comes down to budget restrictions combined with curiosity towards products claiming to perform just as well. “Dupes for brushes and sponges are great! Paying £30 for a brush is madness,” says Erix from London. “A beige foundation is a beige foundation, it’s either the right colour match or it isn’t. That’s important, otherwise they are pretty much all the same. Unless it claims to do something life-changing, why pay for designer?” Similarly, Hester from Reading says she regularly buys beauty dupes: “I buy them to see if they are as good as the real thing!”

There’s a great appeal to shoppers in the low prices of beauty dupes, particularly for younger demographics, and brands are catering to that. “Influences of teenage girls drive the sales of dupes because they want to get as close as they can to a Charlotte Tilbury product, for example, and the lifestyle it promises, but they simply cannot afford it,” Gadsby explains.

Carly-May from Brighton says she would almost always buy a dupe over the original product because it’s low-risk. “A lot of the time I really can’t see a difference in the finish or colour. Too Faced concealer applies and looks the same as Collection, MUA lipsticks look nicer than high-end ones I’ve tried. I won’t buy a Kat Von D eyeliner which is expensive and still smudges, but I’ll buy the Nyx or Revolution ones which don’t budge and are £5-7. And even if they don’t end up being nice, I haven’t spent loads on them,” she says.

However, not everyone is enticed by dupes and Alexandra from Cork is somebody who makes a conscious decision not to buy beauty dupes. “I’m mainly afraid of the ingredients that go in them, like all the horror stories from the fake Kylie Jenner lip gloss products that were going around,” she tells us. “I believe that the real ones are probably better for you.” In addition, she also believes that there is something morally wrong with dupes. “I would rather just buy a cheaper brand than buy a dupe, e.g. Rimmel instead of a duped MAC product, it’s people profiting off someone else’s work that I think is wrong.” For Kirsty from London, her previous experiences with dupes are why she avoids buying them too. “From my past experience and hearing from friends, they’re never as good as the real thing, so if they don’t last as long or look as good, then it’s pointless having them,” she says.

“I’m mainly afraid of the ingredients that go in them, like all the horror stories from the fake Kylie Jenner lip gloss products that were going around. I would rather just buy a cheaper brand than buy a dupe, e.g. Rimmel instead of a duped MAC product, it’s people profiting off someone else’s work that I think is wrong” – Alexandra 

But few, if any consumers, consider the legal issues that accompany dupe products, despite ethical beauty becoming evermore a focus for the industry as consumers demand brand transparency on the sourcing of ingredients and environmentally-friendly packaging. That concern has yet to extend to breaches in trademark, copyright, and design. 

Gadsby credits Aldi and other affordable brand’s success and growth in the beauty arena to how they’ve challenged the age-old fundamentals of the cosmetics industry that cheap means bad, expensive means good, a marketing ploy often executed by luxury brands. “Aldi is saying things can be cheaper and good quality, so people do have a level of trust in Aldi, and their beauty dupes are selling,” he says. 

As for how much the Charlotte Tilbury v Aldi case will impact the industry, very little is the answer, for now. The above experts all believe it simply means that these copycat brands will be more careful in the future, while the lack of legal resources work in their favour and consumers continue to prioritise their budgets rather than the ethical and legal boundaries being crossed. “There’s a demand for them, and where there’s demand, brands will go,” Gadsby concludes. 

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