Today’s post is the last in my mini series for International Justice Mission’s Lent campaign. I won’t lie, it’s been mentally tough to write about so much slavery in such a short period of time. That being said, it has also served as a consistent reminder of how unknown these things are, and how important it is to talk about them. Often times when these issues are reported on we end up left feeling helpless, like there’s nothing we can do or change but this is just the reality we live in. I hope my posts have felt different, as I’ve worked to include action points in each one. It’s tough to face the realities of so much injustice worldwide, but it’s also our responsibility to try and be better. So today, after talking ethical coffee and slavery free chocolate, it’s time to turn my attention to make up.
When we talk about make up ingredients we’re often thinking natural, non toxic, cruelty free and potentially palm oil free. But there are other ingredients to consider, the main one being a material called mica.
What is mica
Mica is a family of minerals from the silicate class, the most common minerals found on earth. It comes in different colours, but essentially looks like a very shiny type of rock (it can often be used as fools gold). It’s very likely you’ve seen mica multiple times before, as it’s well sought after for its ability to make things glitter. Humans have used mica to make paint sparkle for centuries, but nowadays it’s especially common in cosmetics. If products such as your eye shadow, lip stick or blusher have some shimmer to them, they probably contain mica.
Where does it come from?
While mica can be found across the world India holds a strong monopoly, making up 60% of global mica production. More specifically, the states of Jharkhand and Bihar in Eastern India account for roughly 25% of the global mica production, but both of these regions are rife with poverty. According to research published in 2013, 36.9% of the population in Jharkand and 33.7% in Bihar live below the poverty line, which means that slavery can easily enter the supply chain. Children become vulnerable as poverty drives them to seek work so that they support their family, whilst quarry owners also use high interest rate loans and violence to enslave families for generations. Child labour is especially pervasive in India’s mica mining business and a huge amount of India’s mica production is unregulated, with the country ‘officially’ producing around 15,000 tonnes of crude and scrap mica a year but exporting 130,000 tones in 2011-2012.
What mica mining looks like
‘Up to 20,000 children are estimated to work in the mines, around 90% of which are illegal, according to a recent report by NGOs Terre des Hommes and SOMO.’ (source)
Which brands are involved
According to research centre DanWatch, twelve out of sixteen international cosmetic companies don’t disclose where their mica comes from, but seven of them support standards that include combating child labour according to their official communication. The problem, as always, seems to come because mica is often sold to middle men who do business with these larger companies. This gives cosmetics companies the ability to not be directly in contact with any child labour or slavery, in the hopes that no one will notice or that they can say they had no idea if people do. Brands that have been linked to India’s mica mines include Estée Lauder, MAC, Rimmel, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, Toofaced, Schwartzkopf, Intercos, Sun Chemicals, Tesco, Asda, BMW, Vauxhall and Audi (as mica is also used to make glittery car paint). However one of the most notable is the world’s second largest cosmetics company: L’Oréal.
L’Oréal, who owns Maybelline, Lancôme, Garnier, Yves Saint Laurent Beauty, Kiehls, Urban Decay (a very well known cruelty free brand) and more, buys mica through intermediaries such as the German company Merck and the Chinese company Kuncai. These companies are known as the biggest buyers in the area (and supply to the other companies listed above), and regularly source unethical mica:
‘Merck confirm in the article that they were aware of the use of child labour despite contractual obligations from suppliers not to employ children. The company said that further monitoring along the supply chain was very difficult, adding, “especially since these areas are considered not safe.”
Joanna Ewart-James, Anti-Slavery International’s Supply Chain Co-ordinator, said: “It is disappointing that Merck knew about the existence of child labour but appears to have done little to address it. This case demonstrates that contractual requirements not to use forced or child labour are insufficient and offer no guarantee that neither exist in a company’s supply chain.”’ (source)
Whilst Merck has made some vague acknowledgements of the problem, Kuncai simply does not require its supply chain to be child labour free. (source)
‘Many companies market their make-up as ’natural’. There is no clear-cut definition of what the tag ’natural’ would comprise, but it most often refers to the fact that the product includes one or more ingredients which come from natural sources. This means human labour is involved, just as when the naturally occurring mineral mica is dug out of India’s mines. The demand for natural ingredients in make-up is on the rise as a consequence of a general tendency towards a more sustainable and ecological lifestyle. Even if the word ‘natural’ is often connected to sustainability and ecology, there are no societal or environmental rules for the production and the marketing of natural products. As this report shows, it is quite a long shot from ‘natural’ to ‘socially responsible’. Part of the natural mica in our cosmetics is, in fact, produced under conditions which the International Labour Organisation, ILO, classes amongst the worst forms of child labour: children working in mines’ (source)
“We had no idea just how difficult that would be,” says Stephanie Boyd, the company’s PR manager. “As a direct ingredient it would be easy to identify, but unfortunately mica remains as part of a complex mix of materials that are used to make colour pigments and lustres.” (source)
What’s being done
There are a few different approaches that are being implemented, however none of them are currently perfect.
- India legalises mica mining
The legalising of mica mining aims to allow the sector to be properly regulated, including eradicating child labour and providing better wages and working conditions for employees. Last May Reuters reported on the beginning of the process, with authorities planning to first sell off dumps of scrap mica and then auctioning old mica mines and other reserves. While activists praised the move, it’s not enough to fully remove child labour, due to high levels of poverty:
‘“It’s a positive move, but just making illegal mines legal won’t automatically eliminate child labour, child deaths or debt bondage,” said Peter Bengtsen, who investigated mica’s supply chains for the 2015 mica DanWatch report. “Mica-mining families are poor, and either cannot afford to send their children to school or don’t see the benefit, so children will continue working for extremely low payments.”’ (source)
It seems the responsibility here now lies with the Indian government to ensure policy is implemented properly, that mines run their operations ethically (including eliminating debt bondage), and that families are paid enough to send their children to school.
Social auditing and consistent checks from external bodies, like in all areas of manufacturing, aims to keep companies accountable and makes sure they’re doing as they promise. Recently Merck has undertaken steps, employing Environmental Resource Management to carry out monthly assessments of its mines. However, this doesn’t convince everyone.
‘”Audits take individual samples of working conditions and often miss bigger issues,” he says. “There’s also the problem that evidence of child labour is frequently hidden during these audits, as these processes are open to corruption. And, since audits are not designed to look for specific problems – as an investigation would – they are arguably engineered to ignore them.”‘ (source)
- Child Friendly Villages
Established in 2010, child friendly villages is a joint initiative between the National Resources Stewardship Council, (described as ‘a collective of leaders in the beauty industry committed to developing and implementing responsible corporate practices‘) and Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA). Through working with local communities and governments the initiative aims to get children in 500 villages into school instead of mining through improving educational infrastructure and living conditions, with the long terms goal of handing over responsibility to communities and government. As of 2016, it was reported that 100 of the 500 villages had been converted, leading to 3650 children being enrolled in school, new schools constructed and existing schools improved with additions such as clean water, and a summit was held in the same year to commit to scale up the model to the remaining 400 villages. Again, this initiative has its shortcomings:
‘“The lack of clear targets, a well-defined timeframe and a proper control mechanism are reasons to worry,” says Rob Harrison, editor of Ethical Consumer magazine. “In 10 years, child labour has been far from eradicated. It took a year just to prepare the summit.” What’s more, not everyone is convinced of the ability of such schemes to tackle the problem. Rishi Sher Singh, summit participant and director of ASRD, a sustainable business consultancy says that while basic education is essential, “if children don’t learn how to make a living in other ways, they will go back to mining once school is over”’ (source)