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The Ethical Concerns of the Cosmetics Industry

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

Annie Grey delves into the unethical practices of the multi-billion-pound cosmetics industry, including the exploitation of child labour in many supply chains.

Photo by Cotton Bro

Make-up is a multi-billion-pound industry, as cosmetics usage has soared over the years.  While demand has risen, so has the number of shoppers making a conscious effort to consume ethically.

The rise of ethical consumerism has resulted in an increased scrutiny of the cosmetics industry, with shoppers calling for transparency about not only products’ ingredients, but also supply chains. 

Pressure on the industry from ethical consumers has had its successes, with the European Union, Israel, and India banning the sale of any cosmetics or cosmetic ingredients that have been tested on animals. But this is just one of many ethical concerns that plagues the industry.  

The Problem with Mica

Children in India are being exploited in the dangerous search for mica, a natural mineral found in large quantities in the region that is used in cosmetics to add pigment and shimmer to products including eyeshadow, lipstick and blush.The first mica investigations in the country by children’s rights organisation, Terre des Hommes, in 2015, estimated that up to 22,000 children were involved in illegal mica mining in the Indian states of Jharkhand and Bihar. 

Indian law forbids children below the age of 18 to work in mines and other hazardous industries, but many families living in poverty depend on children to boost household incomes, which average around 200 rupees (£2.05) per day. This has resulted in children risking their lives working in these mines for a sum of 20 – 30 rupees per day [GBP £0.21 - £0.31] to supplement their parents’ measly salaries. This shows a clear indication that industries and companies using mica sourced from India are directly contributing to child labour.

Most of the mica mines in the region were shut three decades ago, when a forest protection law came into force, and only a few legal mines operate today, which has consequently pushed the industry underground.  Up to 60% of the high-quality mica used in cosmetics today is sourced from India. Many cosmetic brands, such as L’Oréal and Maybelline, are known to source mica from the region, so we can’t be sure if all the ingredients they use are ethical.

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The Price of Beauty

Roughly 70% of mica produced in India comes from illegal mines that are completely unregulated by the government. With no other industries in the region, many families are forced to continue working in high-risk environments. Breathing in the dust in mica mines can prove fatal, causing infections, disease, and permanent lung damage. There is also a catastrophic risk of cave-ins, with locals reporting: “Deaths are so common that the traders who control this particular cluster of mines have a set rate they give to families who lose loved one while mining”. Reportedly, the set compensation rate for each person who dies is 30,000 rupees [or about £307 GBP]. 

Family mining is common in the region, and a child’s small build and nimble hands are unfortunately  valuable for entering narrow mine shafts and sorting smaller pieces of mica. International cosmetic companies benefit financially from obscuring the origin of the mica they use, as it keeps costs low by allowing exporters to exploit those mining it. Due to this, most cosmetic brands don’t want to talk about mica mining.

Lush Cosmetics is an exception. In 2014, the company was tipped off to potential child labour practices in their supply chain. Following an investigation into the claim, the brand began replacing the material with ‘synthetic mica’. The implementation of this alternative – a biodegradable shimmer pigment created in a lab – makes all its products guaranteed to be free of mica as of the end of 2018.

Given the depth and breadth of the cosmetics supply chain, tracing and monitoring the tiers of production is virtually impossible. Although Lush Cosmetics has since committed to the removal of child labour from their supply chain, the question remains of how they could have done more as an ‘ethical brand’ to help these children? Ethical consumerism is here to stay, and it is the significant influence that consumers have over their shopping decisions that holds the power to push cosmetics companies to not only operate ethically, but also give back to those whom have been previously exploited. 


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