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Green Is The New Black

OPINION: Mica, the Beauty Industry’s Darkest Secret

Mica is a seemingly innocent mineral with not-so-innocent origins. If your beauty products contain mica, there are a few things you should know…

 

If you take a look at your favorite beauty product and read the ingredients listed on the back, chances are mica is probably one of the first listed. Take a look at the back of another product, and there it is again. So many beauty products contain mica, a natural mineral used in cosmetics that add shimmer. It seems like a harmless ingredient that’s abundant and cheap to source, but a deeper look at its origins reveals some grim truths about the mica industry.

The problem

Mica is mineral dust often used in cosmetics that is mostly mined in Jharkhand and Bihar, two states in the northeast of India with the largest known mica reserves in the world. The region accounts for roughly 25% of the global mica production. It’s expected that states this rich in mica would have thriving economies, but roughly 36.9% of people in Jharkhand and 33.7% in Bihar live below the poverty line. These two states suffer from a classic case of “resource curse”, which is when resource abundant regions are susceptible to exploitation and government corruption. This also means that they don’t reap the full benefits of their resources.

 

Families in Jharkhand and Bihar put themselves and their children at risk to earn less than a quarter a day for the mica they mine. They earn barely enough money to feed themselves. School, healthcare, and other simple luxuries are out of the picture. Roughly 90% of these mines are run illegally, meaning that they aren’t subject to the health and safety regulations legally registered mines are. Because of this, children as young as four are working in mines without proper equipment. This exposes them to hazards including lung disease and rockfall or mine collapses that often result in serious injury or death. The small hands and bodies of children easily fit into the small crevices which mica is found in, making them an easy and cheap tool for mining mica. It’s estimated that nearly 20,000 children spend every day of their lives working in these mica mines, unable to attend school as their families need them to work. A lack of education means that almost all of these children will continue to mine mica through adulthood, as will their children and grandchildren.

 

The solution

Many mica suppliers and international companies have acknowledged the potentially devastating reality of the mica industry, and have come together to try and put an end to child labor in the mica production chain. From this initiative, the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI) was born. The RMI operates based on three main pillars:

  1. Implement fair and sustainable mica collection, processing and sourcing practices and improve traceability along the Indian mica supply chain.
  2. Empower local communities to ensure long-lasting change.
  3. Work together with the Indian government and local authorities.

What many companies don’t realize was how difficult it is to trace the source of mica. In 2014, UK based cosmetics company Lush pledged to remove all natural mica from their products and replace it with synthetic mica. Although they have made a complete switch today, in 2016 they were still unable to completely phase out natural mica. This was because companies often don’t purchase mica as a standalone ingredient, and they often aren’t even aware they’re purchasing mica — it’s usually mixed into pigments and dyes that companies purchase to add to their products.

 

It’s also incredibly difficult to actually determine the source of mica since it’s passed through a series of middlemen to conceal the involvement of child labor in its production. In fact, many mica suppliers aren’t even aware of how their mica was sourced. These factors have made it incredibly difficult for companies to remove unethically sourced mica from their production lines, but companies are still striving to transition to mica that doesn’t involve the use of child labor.

 

The RMI can’t achieve its goals unless more companies step in to support the movement. If awareness doesn’t reach other companies, mines that utilize child labor will continue to make a profit from unaware consumers, overriding the progress of the RMI. As a consumer, it’s important that you make responsible choices and support companies who source responsibly and ethically.

 

More information about the RMI, including a list of members, can be found on their website. 

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Gaby is a student from the US living in Singapore. She's passionate about the effects that the growing demand for cosmetics is having on the human and animal lives involved, and on the environment. She's a strong believer that any little change can go a long way.

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