Hair says a lot about someone. It’s an indication of style, of health, of beauty, of femininity. So it's no surprise that the hair extension market is booming, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars of profit off of human (and synthetic) hair. It’s probably safe to say that nearly every female celebrity wears extensions, and some of them, like Kylie Jenner, even sell them.
But a new exposé from the New Zealand Herald explores where exactly all these human hair extensions come from, delving into the shocking world of exploitation and peroxide that is the hair extension market. You should read the whole thing.
It turns out that most of the hair being bought and sold around the world comes originally from China. Reporters Olivia Carville and Mike Scott traveled all the way to Taihe in eastern China, known as the hair capital of the country because it alone produces $2 billion of hair, to see exactly where some of the hair grows. There, they detail (and feature photographs of) Qingwen Liu, a 14-year-old girl, who has her long hair cut by a hair agent. Her mother barters a price of about $100 USD for the hair, which is actually almost twice as the normal fetching price (apparently the price has inflated because there are Western journalists witnessing it). Carville and Scott write:
Taihe county is home to more than 400 companies processing hair, including small family businesses that buy hair pulled out of hairbrushes or picked up off the streets. They can buy a kilogram of dead hair for $16, lengthen out every strand, bind it into a ponytail and sell it for $100 [NZD] at the local hair markets.
But hair cut straight from the head, hair like Qingwen Liu’s, is worth eight times as much, selling for up to $800 [NZD] a kg at the markets.
As lovely as it would be to imagine that this as a very consensual process, the hair market is deeply exploitative, with women and even young girls around the world having their hair cut against their wishes—some of whom have it forcefully taken from them with no compensation. In other parts of the country, the Herald finds people (mostly women) toiling away in factories, some being paid as low as $2 an hour, dying, styling, and sewing the hair into the applicable extensions. Each of these factories can produce five kilometers of hair a day, or 1825 kilometers a year. You could make a trail from New York City to Tampa, Florida with all that hair. Of course, it’s not like these Chinese women will get any credit for their contributions. From the Herald:
Despite 70 per cent of the hair processed in China being Chinese and coming from girls in the countryside like Qingwen Liu, the final products are being mislabelled as Brazilian or Peruvian to increase the price for Western suppliers, many who believe Chinese hair is the poorest quality.
By the time the extensions are completed, each individual package could carry the hair of up to 200 women and it would be impossible to know who they were or where they came from.
This may not seem like a big deal—after all it’s just hair. But when you consider the idea that hair is technically a part of someone’s body, that changes the narrative a bit:
To Tim Hazledine, a professor of economics at Auckland University, the hair trade is effectively “farming humans”.
“We’re talking about harvesting human bodies for profit.”
Carville and Scott also spoke to a number of people in beauty salons—including clients who buy the hair—and for the most part, they didn't find too much remorse about the idea of wearing hair that may have been taken from someone without their consent. “I feel sad, but I feel sad every time I eat a chocolate bar,” one woman told them. Besides, it’s just too hard to figure out where extensions actually come from and the hair that is ethically sourced goes unused because it’s expensive.
As is the case in the New York Times exposé about the horrible conditions nail technicians are put through at nail salons in the city, it’s hard to say if this story will actually affect consumers, although hopefully it could spur some new regulation of the hair extension market.
It’s easy to dismiss the severity of the exploitation in this market—to think that people don't get hurt (even though they sometimes do), or that it's not as bad as something like human trafficking. And, of course, hair grows back. But it’s a perfect example of the Western world’s exploitation of vulnerable people in poorer countries, using the weakest communities in the world in pursuit of elusive and vapid beauty standards.
Seriously, go read the whole report.