If you’re obsessed with makeup, your beauty routine probably consists of a poppin’ highlight, glossy lips and glitter cut creases—but have you ever wondered where all that shine actually comes from?
Chances are, the ingredient that makes your nail polish reflective and your highlight glisten is mica, which is the name for a group of 37 naturally occurring minerals that are used in various industries, including cosmetics, automotive, tech and construction. Mica adds shine to cosmetics and car paint, but it’s also used as an electrical conductor in electronics, a more durable alternative to glass in stoves and kerosene heaters, and even as a soil conditioner in potting soil mixes. All of which is to say, mica is a valuable substance. In fact, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) predicts the market for this group of minerals will grow to almost $700 million USD in 2024.
Mica can be found in China, Russia, Finland, the U.S. and even here in Canada, but the cosmetics industry overwhelmingly sources its supply from India, where it’s often mined by children as young as four or five years old. (Horrifyingly, this is because their hands are small enough to fit into the tight crevices where mica is commonly found.)
The problems with mica mining have only received mainstream attention in the past few years, and even then, mostly in Europe—British Vogue, Wired, The Guardian and Spiegel have all reported on the link between shimmery makeup and child labour. But despite growing media attention on this side of the pond, Canadian consumers likely aren’t always aware of the issue. In fact, according to a 2018 report published by World Vision, we’re spending more than ever on products that are likely to include child labour in their supply chains—$798.2 million, to be exact, which is up 136% over the past 10 years.
Though “cruelty-free makeup” has long been about animal testing, these numbers make it clear: it’s high time the term starts to encompass child labour, too.
Mica mining is “dirty, dangerous and degrading”
According to SOMO , a quarter of the world’s mica comes from the eastern Indian states of Jharkand and Bihar, where more than 22,000 children work in mica mines. Mines in these states are often illegal and unregulated—it’s common to see children crouching on dusty floors, sifting through crumbling powder for hours on end, looking for little clusters of mica. Some of these kids were kidnapped and forced into child labour. But in many cases, they’re working alongside their parents, who have pulled them out of school to help support the family.
“[Poverty] forces people from disadvantaged communities to take up these risky jobs and rely on children to help provide for their families instead of sending them to school,” says Jakub Sobik, the communications manager at Anti-Slavery International.
And these jobs are very risky. According to 2016 investigation by Reuters, seven children died in mica mines in just two months. Since using children to mine mica is illegal, the people running these mines are operating under the radar, and there are very few safety regulations, like reinforced walls or protective equipment. Mine collapses are quite common, children use hazardous equipment, like picks and hammers and, according to a recent article in Marie Claire, they’re constantly breathing in “fine particles [of mica, which] can lead to respiratory conditions like asthma, silicosis, and tuberculosis.”
“That kind of poverty is not very familiar to Canadians,” says Cheryl Hotchkiss, the vice president of public engagement at World Vision Canada. “These are families that really have no other option.”
But there is solution to this problem. Or rather, there are three: Families need a way out of poverty, brands need to take a closer look at their supply chains and consumers need to take action, too.
Beauty brands need to be more transparent about their supply chains
There are charities that are working to stop child labour in the mica mining industry, including Anti-Slavery International, Terre des Hommes, Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, Thomas Reuters Foundation and World Vision Canada. And they’re not the only ones agitating for change; according to the Shareholder Association for Research & Education (SHARE), business leaders want the Canadian government to take action in the form of supply chain transparency legislation, which would require companies to disclose where their mica comes from.
This is key, because cosmetic companies have been slow to find “clean” sources of the mineral. Only 18% of a pool of 60 Canadian companies with mica-containing products provided detailed evidence of their commitment to prevent child labour in their supply chains, according to the World Vision study.
Procter & Gamble, Coty Inc. and L’Oréal Paris Group are three of the largest brands that use mica. L’Oréal Paris Group, which owns brands like L’Oréal and Maybelline and sells 948 mica-containing products, is one of the few cosmetic brands that directly addresses its mica supply chain on its website, saying it sources “from legal gated mines only, where working conditions can be closely monitored and human rights respected.” The company says most of its mica comes from America, and that as of 2017, its Indian supply chain is mostly secured.
And Coty, which owns CoverGirl, OPI, Sally Hansen and Rimmel London, has at least acknowledged that its supply chain may include child labour. In a June 2017 report, the company says it, “has joined the Responsible Mica Initiative along with our suppliers and competitors to collaboratively address these complex issues and aims to achieve a responsible mica supply chain over the next five years.”
In contrast, Procter & Gamble says very little about its mica supply chain—though a 2016 Guardian investigation linked the cosmetics giant to Indian mines that use child labour.
(FLARE reached out to Procter & Gamble, Coty Inc., Maybelline and L’Oreal Paris Group for comment, but didn’t receive a response by press time.)
“Companies at the very least should have a better insight into what’s in their supply chains,” Hotchkiss says. “Many people don’t know that within their supply chain there may be a child that is doing work that is dirty, dangerous and degrading. If they knew, they would do something about it.”
But consumers need to to demand answers, too.
Advocacy is key, so what can Canadian consumers do?
If you’re a Canadian makeup lover, taking action is actually quite simple.
“Reach out to your favourite brand… and ask them what they know about their mica supply chain,” says Candace Grenier, the founder of Pure Anada. The sustainable cosmetics company is dedicated to using ethically-sourced mica without the use of child labour in their products. Hold brands accountable by reaching out to the human resources department, spreading awareness on social media or investing your money in beauty products that are sustainable, eco-friendly and cruelty-free (for animals and people).
Grenier hadn’t considered asking about her mica supply chain when she started in 2014—until she got an email from environmental journalist Adria Vasil asking her where her pigment came from.
“I was worried it would be the end of my company,” she says. So, she made a change. She found a mica supplier that is transparent about its practices and is dedicated to ethical mica mining. According to Pure Anada’s website, the supplier owns the mines and funds daycare and school programs to help improve the quality of life for its employees in India.
The biggest challenge with sourcing sustainable mica is product consistency, according to Grenier. Because they’re dealing with natural ingredients that are harvested or mined, it can change from season to season, so the texture, colour and scent might be different each time you buy the product, unlike big companies who mass produce their products to ensure consistency.
“Pure Anada is different,” she says. “It’s not going to be the exact same as a brand you’d find in a drug store or a department store, but the things that make us different are the things that I’m proud of.”
Grenier says the majority of customers are really understanding of this product inconsistency because it’s important that brands are transparent.
“I am purchasing raw materials and supplies that are helping to support other people, even if it means it costs more,” she says. “But I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.”