05 Aug

In search of Becky with the Good Hair: Part II

Exploring gender, power and solutions for decent work in the human hair trade.

In my previous post on the 600 million dollar human hair trade, I explored the power imbalance in the trade which not only affected the level of access and control different actors had over the value chain but also affected the impact work could have on their socio-economic development.  Women, particularly poor women, occupied low wage, informal and labour intensive activities in the value chain while men occupied the more industrialised, high wage activities in the value chain. I wanted to explore possible solutions to addressing the power inequalities in this value chain.

Ethically sourced hair is anything but ethical

Existing initiatives aiming to empower producers in the value chain are mainly centred on the idea of ‘ethically sourced’ hair. Just what this means varies according to different brands but based on my review of five different ‘ethically sourced’ hair brands (Bloomsbury of London, Balmain Hair, Hair Exquisite, Great Lengths and Remy Capillus), there are three basic features to hair being classified as ethically sourced.

The producer has given consent for her to be cut

One of the main features of ethically sourced hair is that the woman or man has to give consent to their hair being cut. The majority of brands claiming to do so are the brands which source their human hair from Indian temples, also known as tonsure hair. As explained in my previous post, tonsure hair is obtained from pilgrims who travel to Hindu temples and shave their hair voluntarily as sacrificial offerings to their deity. One hair brand, Hair Exquisite, for example, claim their hair is ethically sourced precisely because the hair has ‘entered the cycle through donations of human hair by women to temples in south India’ and is ‘stored in the temple as per the traditional and religious requirements of the women.’

While they do offer their hair voluntarily, the women do so for religious reasons and not to sell their hair in the market. Therefore, hair brands justifying their hair as ethically sourced because they use tonsured hair are distorting the element of consent. Consent in one circumstance does not qualify consent in another. Hindu temples owners are the ones who actually sell the human hair as an alternative to burning the hair which previously caused air pollution and in some instances was banned by local municipalities. So the consent that makes this hair ‘ethical’ is not the consent of pilgrims (producers) but the consent of the owners of Hindu temples to sell this hair in the human hair market.

The manufacturers and consumer brands rewrite the narrative of consent to prove ‘ethicality’ to the consumer. It is a seductive narrative, one which is used recurrently across the marketing of human hair. Bloomsbury of London refer to the producers of the hair as ‘donors’ and Great Lengths, a UK based hair manufacturing company, stipulate the hair they process ‘is donated voluntarily’. The element of consent is also problematic as one cannot donate something while receiving a reward for it; a donation implies giving of something without expecting or receiving something back. In this case, as hair is given in return for a payment, it’s not a donation but a sale. Furthermore, it’s problematic to define ethical hair as consent of the producer because it should be the case anyway across all the different methods of sourcing the hair.

The producer receives a monetary reward for their hair

A second type of feature used to define ‘ethically sourced hair’ is that the producer of the hair receives a monetary reward for their hair. Bloomsbury of London, a human hair company claiming to sell ‘ethically sourced European wigs’, brand their hair as ethically sourced because they are able to directly reach the producers which allows them to ‘obtain the complete particulars of the hair sent in’ and pay the ‘full monetary reward for their type of donation.’ Great Lengths also highlight this claiming that direct contact with the producer/donor means, they are able to ‘ensure a fair and appropriate price was paid for the hair.’ Just how much money the producers receive for their hair is not disclosed but presumably is determined by the buyer and the value they place on the characteristics of each bundle of hair.

An additional thing to note is that the producers are not paid for their labour (i.e. growing the hair) but for the product and its associated value as determined by the buyer. Even if the women were paid a ‘fair’ price for the hair, does the fair price does not include the effort and labour someone has put in to grow their hair for sale.

Remy Capillus, a US based human hair manufacturing company define ethical sourced hair not by the price paid to the producer but by the working conditions of the workers in their value chain. The human hair value chain as with any other labour intensive value chain is notorious for the low-pay and low quality working conditions of workers further down the value chain. Remy Capillus use it to define their ethical stance on human hair production, ‘we choose our locations based on one thing: quality of workmanship in the workforce. Regardless of where we are, or what we are doing, we ensure that ALL of our employees, whether direct or indirect, are treated in an ethical manner that avoids the use of child or elderly labor as well as excessive overtime.’

Who determines what ethical is?

Another noticeable trend among the brands I surveyed, is the emphasis on the amount of control they have over sourcing and processing the hair. This is what enables them to legitimately claim the hair has been consented by the producer. However, having direct contact with the producer is also used a marketing tactic to verify to the consumer that they ‘know’ the hair is authentic in its quality and characteristics.

At least two of the five brands I surveyed do this. Great Lengths argue that in having a ‘controlled production process from the first step to the last: from accepting the hair all the way to selling it, the in-house production ensures full traceability in producing the extensions.’ Bloomsbury of London also claim to have direct contact with the producer, ‘to track the original owner and establish the complete nature in the hair…, i.e. if it has been previously chemically treated or colored, and…if it truly is natural straight or curly.’

I critique these points to illustrate that, the current mechanisms used to ensure the producer ‘is empowered’ in the human hair value chain, does the exact opposite. Manufacturers and marketing companies still have power and visibility to control the production process, where and who they can get their supply from and the narrative they tell to the consumer about the sourcing and the production process. They still retain full access and control of the most lucrative aspect of the chain (verifying the quality of the hair), and furthermore they are able to use it as marketing ploy to attract the consumer. This point is proven by the language used to promote the ‘ethical hair’ – Great Lengths asks the consumer, ‘What feels even better than beautiful hair? Wearing the hair in good conscience!’

Instead of ethical sourcing becoming a process to transform the power inequalities in the value chain, it becomes another tool used to maintain the power inequalities in the value chain.

Towards new alternatives…

Alternative approaches, which seek to provide decent working opportunities for producers and vulnerable workers in the value chain will necessarily involve enabling them to gain access and control over the activities with the most influence in the value chains.  These activities include trading, manufacturing, marketing and distributing the hair.

One solution would be to upgrade low-wage workers and producers in the value chain. This means providing them with the training, resources, equipment and information for them to take over these activities. For instance, with the right training, a woman who sells her hair, would be able to process, market and distribute her hair directly to consumers.

As one of the higher value-added activities in this value chain is the activity involving marketing or ‘certifying’ the quality of hair, producers from a certain region could form a cluster network in the form of a joint quality consortium. Quality consortiums are networks of small and medium sized business that join together in the production of goods and services to occupy a specific share of the market while simultaneously meeting international quality assurance standards. This allows them to increase their output (amount of hair) and reduce the transaction costs involved in trading, processing and distributing (i.e. shipping) the hair.

A famous example of a quality consortium is the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese brand which is actually a network of small cheese manufacturers from five provinces in Italy coming together to produce a specific quality of cheese. In pooling together, these network of cheese business owners have created a product, trademarked by its quality which they can also use as a marketing tool internationally. In a similar manner, if a network of human hair producers pool together and create a distinctive quality in the hair they sell, they could occupy a certain share in the market thus building the consumer demand enough to invest in facilities to consistently meet the demand.

No progress without rights

A critical element of addressing the power inequalities in the value chain and enabling decent work opportunities is to promote rights and standards that protect and empower vulnerable workers across the value chain.  A rights-based approach to work not only promotes the human rights and capabilities of workers but will guarantee the most sustainable way to reduce poverty by ensuring a set standard of conditions for the present and the future.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), strengthening access to rights is the most effective way to ensure that vulnerable workers engage in productive and high value activities that protect and maximise their individual and collective capabilities. In the 2016 World Employment Social Outlook report on Transforming Jobs to end poverty, ILO explains further the importance of a rights-based approach to enabling decent work,

‘At the individual level, people should have some choice with respect to the type of job they perform and, in particular, they should be able to refuse unacceptable forms of work. On a collective level, the poor and vulnerable should have a voice and the capacity to influence policy-making in favour of measures that support their livelihoods, such as skills development, health and safety measures, collective bargaining, social protection and anti-discrimination. In short, fighting poverty requires both individual and collective capabilities.’

At present, there are brands such as Great Lengths and Balmain Hair, with self-imposed standards on their sourcing and production processes and treatment of workers.  However, these standards are voluntary and not industry wide regulations and there is actually very little information publicly available for the consumer or regulators to hold the companies accountable.

A rights- based approach for the individual should involve implementing industry-wide compulsory standards about the working conditions for all workers, equitable minimum salaries and wages as well as social protection policies (i.e. medical care benefits) enabling women and men to actively participate in the economy in the long-term.

At the collective level, ensuring there are opportunities for workers to come together and influence policy and legal frameworks is important for ensuring accountable and responsive standards. This should come hand in hand with judiciary institutions such as workers’ tribunals to make sure companies comply with standards and workers have opportunities to report companies not complying with regulations.

Due to the nature of the human hair value chain, producing and processing of the product is divided across various geographies which may make it difficult to ensure that workers across different countries get equal working rights. However, thanks to international standards created by ILO, shown in the image below, if all governments choose to ratify these agreements, the rights of workers involved in the value chain could be protected across borders.


Source: Image from ILO World Employment Social Outlook 2016: Transforming jobs to end poverty

I’m aware these solutions are built on several optimistic assumptions but which are important to discuss as decent work is a running theme in the sustainable development agenda, in particular Goal 8, decent work and economic growth. Firstly, I’m assuming that there is the interest from policy makers and industry leaders to realise a pro-poor and equitable value chain. This is a very big assumption particularly for powerful leaders in the industry (i.e. marketing and manufacturing companies) that stand to lose out if producers start to work in these high value-add activities.

Secondly, enabling decent work opportunities for vulnerable workers in this value chain may not necessarily be their desired outcome. If the poor women selling their hair for additional income or working in the processing factories had an alternative sustainable way to earn a living, would they be involved in this trade at all?

Thirdly, empowerment is not a linear process which means that upgrading value chains and implementing industry wide legal standards may be necessary reforms but not sufficient conditions to promoting decent work and empowering poor people in the value chain. If there are structural barriers which are the real cause of vulnerable working conditions in the value chain, it would require reforms far beyond the value chain itself. For example, if the vulnerable workers in the human hair value chain are not protected by legal labour standards, it could be a structural issue in the country which means that poor people, in general, are not able nor encouraged to access their rights within the judicial system. Thus, the solution to ensure legal working rights in the value chain would not be to implement industry-wide standards but actively work to realise an effective and fair judicial system.

My final assumption is that we have enough information and data to develop effective reforms in the value chain. In reality, information or rather access to information in the human hair value chain is notoriously difficult, and the low wage earners in this industry are almost invisible. The most information available in this value chain is related to the product as opposed to the producers and the workers in the factories. When we have quality data and the participation of vulnerable workers, we can begin to design interventions that promote their rights to decent work opportunities.

As with every development intervention, it is worth remembering that nothing is effective if it does not involve the individual at the centre of the empowerment process. So perhaps the first solution to transforming the value chain is visibility; digging deep(er) in the value chain, bringing forward the voices of the women who sell their hair, or the workers working long hours with little to no pay; finding out their context (personal and social), motives, and aspirations connecting them to this value chain. Data availability is a pro-poor tactic as it minimises human error and subjective bias. However, we also need the critical marker of human evolution, empathy, to make sure the process starts and ends with the people at the centre of development. As Richard Hull, Director of Social Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths University, says, ‘real social innovation needs empathy and understanding of the people and context upon which we want to make a difference.’

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