The growing market for wigs and hair extensions is projected to reach $10 billion in revenue by 2023. Many consumers covet real human hair, as opposed to cheaper synthetic alternatives, because of its natural appearance and resilience to styling. However, harvesting and selling products of the human body make the hair trade rather unique. Many consumers are justifiably curious about how manufacturers source their products. The human hair industry has less regulation, and the ethics of human hair trade can be complex. Although the voluntary sale of hair can be lucrative to many impoverished women, ethical issues often arise when products of the human body are treated as capital.
Where the Hair Comes From
Most commercial hair comes from Russia, Ukraine, China, Peru, and India, with China being the largest hair exporter. Most American hair extension companies source their products from Indian Temples, capitalizing on a ritual head shaving ceremony called Tonsure. Hair manufacturers collect the hair of millions of devotees from temple floors.
Turning Hair Into a Micro-Economy
Hair can be one of the most lucrative commodities that women in extreme poverty have access to. When individuals in developing countries sell their hair, fair compensation can dwarf their monthly earnings. This participation in the global marketplace increases the sellers’ spending power, feeds local economies and allows struggling populations to provide for their families.
Consent versus Exploitation
Paying struggling women for such a personal commodity can easily cross the line into exploitation. The ethics of human hair trade become more questionable when sellers are desperate, and participate as a last resort. Venezuela’s economic crisis has seen an influx of women in need selling bundles of hair to help provide for their families. Rapid hyperinflation has made salaries nearly useless, forcing many Venezuelans to look for supplemental income in the hair trade. Vulnerable and impoverished women are not always able to barter with brokers and receive reimbursement at market prices. In Cambodia, 39-year-old Sreyvy regrets chopping her waist-length locks for just $15. The traders left her remaining hair uneven and patchy.
“I feel regret for cutting my hair off. I don’t feel made up,” said Sreyvy.
As with other in-demand sources of capital, human hair can be vulnerable to theft and forcible hair cutting. During these attacks, thieves ambush long-haired women, clipping off victims’ ponytailed hair at gun or knifepoint. The thieves are then able to sell stolen hair to manufacturers for quick money. Hair theft has become a chronic offense during Venezuela’s economic decline. A Venezuelan gang called The Piranhas ambushes victims in shopping malls and populated city streets, forcibly cutting and selling ponytails.
Dreadlocks can take many years to grow, and sew-in ready locks are in demand. The market for dreadlocks has instigated a string of hair thefts in South Africa. Johannesburg gangs have become known for their ‘cut and runs’. By selling shoulder-length dreadlocks, hair thieves can earn between $23 and $58, while longer locks can be sold for as much as $230.
Although the ethics of human hair trade can be tricky to navigate as a consumer, brands like Great Lengths are sourced by consenting and fairly reimbursed individuals. Human hair is a luxury item, and ethically sourced wigs and extensions will inevitably be expensive.
Inexpensive and natural-looking, synthetic hair is also an option. However, the non-recyclable plastic fibers pose an additional set of environmental concerns. Some companies have found innovative ways to improve the sustainability of their synthetic hair. Raw Society Hair has begun using fibers from banana trees to create coarse, braidable hair. The hair is biodegradable, and a natural byproduct of the banana crop, which could increase farmers’ earnings.
The ethics of human hair trade can be complex. While some impoverished women may use it as a source of income, others are exploited for their long locks. A company called Great Lengths works to make sure that any hair the company sells is bought from people who consent and are paid fairly. Other organizations use synthetic hair as an alternative. Either way, hair trade is not simple. However, when organizations source their hair ethically it can be used as a resource for people in poverty to gain income.
– Stefanie Grodman