Mica: behind the sparkle, the dark side of the beauty industry

What is mica?

If you own an eyeshadow or any sort of makeup that promises to give you that sought-after dewy glow, then you most likely own a product containing mica. Basically, it’s the name given to a group of silicate minerals that can be ground down and used to add shimmer to beauty products – from blusher and eyeshadow to foundation and nail polish. It’s also added to some plastics, inks and paints, including for cars, as well as being used in electronics like hair dryers and toasters and as a filler in the construction industry.

Illegal mines, child labour and poverty

It’s not mica – a naturally produced mineral – that is itself the issue. Instead, it’s the way that the mineral is mined. The majority of mica is extracted from India and China: the Indian states of Jharkhand and Bihar have the largest deposits of the mineral in the world, accounting for an estimated 25 percent of global production. A shocking 90 percent of the mines are illegal. Both states also have some of the highest poverty rates in the country, and literacy rates are below average – two factors that are key causes of child labour.

And that’s where the problem lies: child labour is rife in the mica mining industry in these two states. A 2016 report by NGOs Terre des Hommes and SOMO estimated that 20,000 children work in mines in the region – some of them as young as five years old. While some children hammer away at rock fragments, others sort rock debris or sieve the mica to remove dust. Many work underground, with some having to mine in tight, 10-metre-deep spaces. Children will work all day – up to eight hours – and not go to school. Others begin working after their school day finishes. The region’s extreme poverty means that every member of a family is expected to work and earn a living. As well as missing out on a normal childhood and education in order to carry out gruelling work, the children are also exposed to silica dust (which can lead to lung disease), and risk broken bones, heatstroke, scorpion bites and cuts. Several have also been killed by mine roofs collapsing, with the deaths of seven children reported in a two-month period alone.

What is being done?

Since 2005, when NGO AID India reported that there were 18,000 child labourers in mica mines in the state of Jharkhand alone, some positive changes have been made. India’s government has opened many more schools in the two states, and an initiative led by Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) to make 500 villages in the region ‘child-friendly’ has seen 2,200 children enrolled in schools. Many of the brands that use mica in their products have also taken note, with companies like L’Oreal committing to sourcing mica only from legal and fenced mines and avoiding the informal sector where child labour is common. It’s not a straightforward solution however, as tracing the origins of the mineral is difficult: mica may be bought and then sold by intermediaries, meaning that legal and illegal mica become mixed. Even beauty brand Lush, which is known for its natural products and ethical practices, has struggled to live up to its commitment to remove all traces of natural mica. The company moved to using only synthetic mica, but later found that this also contained traces of the natural mineral.

Despite these attempts, the huge increase – 75 percent – in the amount of mica being exported from the area has likely also increased the number of child labourers, and the current estimated number is no lower than it was 13 years ago, in 2005.

What can you do?

Next time you buy makeup or any beauty product, carefully check the ingredients for mica – if it has it, leave it on the shelf. A report by DanWatch, an independent non-profit media and research centre, found that only four out of 16 companies questioned could prove that they aren’t using mica that has involved child labour, including UK skincare brand Green People. Boycotting mica is just the beginning, however; efforts to eradicate child labour altogether have to be made by both companies and governments, at the local, national and international level. As consumers, we can also have an impact, by voting with our feet (and our money) and buying only from brands that ensure ethical practices within their supply chains.

Your laundry is polluting the ocean. Here’s how to stop it.

In 2011, ecologists from the University of New South Wales, Australia, made a disturbing discovery: trillions of tiny plastic microfibres are contaminating the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers. The study found that, on 18 different shorelines in six continents, 85 percent of the shores’ sediment was made up of microfibres, which had come largely from clothing.

So just how did they get there? Increasingly, the majority of our clothes are made from synthetic fibres, like polyester. When synthetic clothing is washed, thousands of tiny plastic fibres are released, and the resulting wastewater travels through sewage systems to rivers and oceans, posing a health risk to wildlife, plants and marine habitats – as well as taking centuries to decompose. Microfibres are able to slip through nets and filtration systems that catch larger pollutants, and they are commonly mistaken for food by marine life, which disrupts feeding and digestion.

More than 1,900 fibres can be produced by a single garment in just one wash. A 2016 study by the University of California in Santa Barbara found that a city the size of Berlin will release a wash-related volume of microfibres equivalent to 500,000 plastic bags – every single day.

The Guppyfriend

While giving up on washing our clothes is obviously not an option, there is one solution that can help reduce the amount of microfibres that are released. Horrified by reports of the environmental threats posed by microfibres, Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, co-founders of German outdoor apparel company Langbrett and non-profit organisation Stop! Micro Waste, came up with an ingenious solution: the Guppyfriend. The Guppyfriend is a self-cleaning mesh bag that goes in the washing machine, with your dirty clothes inside it. The bag filters out any broken microfibres so that, instead of being washed away with the laundry wastewater, they can be removed and safely disposed of in the household trash. When tested by a number of scientific institutes, the bag was found to retain at least 90 percent of fibres (in the majority of the tests, this was closer to 100 percent). The Guppyfriend is made from monofilaments, which are more like sticks than threads, so it doesn’t release any fibres itself.

The bag also increases the lifespan of your clothes, as there is less fibre loss compared to when washing without the bag – in tests, there was a 79 percent reduction in loss of fibres for partly synthetic clothing, and an 86 percent reduction for clothes made entirely from synthetic fabrics. In addition, after 50 washes, the bag and its seams were all intact.

Other ways to reduce the environmental impact of laundry day

Choose a front-loading washing machine. Interestingly, the study by the University of California also found that top-loading washing machines – more commonly used in the US than in the UK – increased the average amount of fibres shed from clothing, compared to front-loading washing machines. Front loaders also consume less water: an average of almost 23 litres less per cycle. They’re also more energy-efficient and cheaper to run.

Air-dry your clothes. Washing and drying a load of laundry every two days creates around 440kg of CO2e each year – the same amount that flying from London to Glasgow and back would consume (with 15-mile taxi rides to and from the airports). However, much of that carbon footprint comes from tumble drying. 3.3kg of CO2e is created when washing and drying clothes at 40°C, compared to 0.7kg when simply washing clothes at the same temperature and allowing them to air-dry. Air-dry your clothes and they’ll last longer, too: clothes dried in a tumble dryer just 20 times a year will tear twice as much as air-dried garments, and they’re more likely to shrink and fade as well.

Turn the temperature down. Around 90 percent of the energy used to operate a washing machine comes from heating the water. The less hot water you use, the more energy you’ll save. Cold water is just as effective at cleaning a regular load of laundry as hot water, unless you’re trying to remove oily stains.

Choose your washing powder carefully. Look out for eco-friendly laundry detergents. The Environmental Working Group has a handy guide to laundry cleaners, with an alphabetical rating system that grades products based on the hazards the ingredients pose to health or the environment.

Five years on, what has changed since the Rana Plaza tragedy?

It is exactly five years since the horrifying Rana Plaza tragedy occurred. On April 24 2013, Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building – an eight-storey complex housing clothing factories, shops and a bank – collapsed. In just 90 seconds, all but one of the building’s floors crumbled, leaving 1,134 people dead and approximately 2,500 injured in what is considered to be the deadliest garment factory disaster ever, as well as the deadliest accidental structural disaster in modern history. Despite cracks in the building having been discovered the day before and staff from the shops and bank evacuated, factory bosses threatened to withhold a month’s pay from workers if they didn’t return the following day. The next morning, seven stories of the building collapsed. In that minute and a half, Rana Plaza also became a symbol of the appalling human rights abuses, greed and corruption that were – and still are – rife in the fashion industry.

The Rana Plaza building, located 24 kilometres from Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, was home to five separate garment factories employing approximately 5,000 people. Brands such as Benetton, Primark, Walmart, Mango and Bonmarche sourced their products from these factories. The complex was badly and illegally built, however: there was no permit for the top three floors, where some of the factories were housed, a fact that was ignored by the authorities, apparently because of the owner’s political connections. The swampy ground on which Rana Plaza was situated was not suitable for a multi-storey construction, and the building was made from largely poor-quality materials. The factory’s heavy machinery also added excess weight to the structure.

The day before the collapse, noticeable cracks had begun to appear in the walls. According to media reports, the Industrial Police recommended that all operations in the building be suspended until an inspection had taken place. While the shops and bank on the ground and first floor were closed the next day, the owners of the garment factories ignored the Police’s recommendation and threatened employees with loss of wages and even dismissal if they didn’t turn up for work. Many apparently arrived just one hour before the building collapsed.

What has happened since?

In the aftermath of the tragedy – and with the world watching – both the fashion industry and the Bangladeshi government pledged to make crucial changes that would ensure that something like Rana Plaza could never happen again. One month after the disaster, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety was set up to monitor safety conditions. The Accord is an independent and legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions that is designed to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for the garment industry, and provide a working environment where fires, building collapses and other accidents are prevented with reasonable health and safety measures. The Accord has been signed by over 100 international brands and retailers, as well as unions and NGOs, and many of the signatories have recently signed a renewed three-year agreement that will take effect next month, ensuring that hundreds of additional factories will be inspected and renovated.

Bangladesh’s government also announced plans to make it easier for garment workers to form unions, and the minimum wage in the country’s clothing industry was increased from its previous level of 3,000 Bangladeshi Taka (around £25).

In January 2014, the International Labour Organization set up the Rana Plaza Donor Trust Fund, which raised USD$30 million in compensation for the victims and their families. But with almost three in four survivors of Rana Plaza unable to work owing to physical ailments and trauma, the money has long gone on medical expenses and daily bills. Progress to bring those involved in the tragedy to justice has been slow too. Five years later, and the murder trials of the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, and 37 others – including factory officials and government inspectors – have yet to take place, having faced continual delays and appeals.

A long way to go

Despite the steps taken since 2013, there is still much progress to be made. While the Accord covers more than 800 factories, there are still thousands that are not covered and therefore not inspected, which puts millions of garment workers at risk. Rana Plaza was not an isolated incident: the same problems that led to the disaster are still cropping up in garment industries around the world. The Fashion Transparency Index, published this week by Fashion Revolution – a global movement that calls for greater transparency, sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry – shows that, worldwide, many brands (and particularly luxury fashion brands) provide very little or no public information about their supply chains or how their workers are treated. This makes it almost impossible, says the report, “for a consumer to find out where their clothes have been made, by whom and under what conditions”. As a result, “factory fires, safety accidents and faulty buildings continue to harm people in the places where our clothes are made”.

What you can do

Join the #whomademyclothes campaign, run by Fashion Revolution. The campaign aims to raise consumers’ awareness of where their clothes come from and encourage them to use their voices to demand greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.

Sign Fashion Revolution’s manifesto, a 10-point plan for a safer fashion industry that was launched in parliament this year.

Vote with your money. Only buy from fashion companies that make ethically produced and ethically sourced products. Look for brands that have certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard – certified businesses must meet strict criteria, such as a total ban on child labour, safe and hygiene working conditions, fair working hours and living wages. Finally, check the Fashion Transparency Index and see what rating a company has received before deciding to buy.

Main image: rijans/Flickr

Inset image: coolloud/Flickr

How will automation affect the fashion industry?

We live in a world where, not long ago, robots serving humans was a fantasy. Fast forward a couple of decades and we can see that the line between reality and fiction is blurring out rapidly. Progression is human nature, and that alone has been the reason for the massive change in the landscape of every industry around us – but all that comes at a cost.

Although the introduction of automation has sped up the production process, there are many negatives associated with it as well – particularly in the fashion industry. We take a look at what these are.

Less humans, more machines

With more machines doing the work at a significantly lower cost, the need for manual labour is decreasing quickly. Humans may still be required to operate and give instructions according to production requirements, but machines will be doing the processing work – and consequently replacing countless people.

With benefits like these, companies will find it in their best interests to automate the process and keep up with the competition. This will mean that millions of jobs will disappear, and, without a plan set in place, millions of people will be without work.

The death of creativity

An overlooked fact about automation is that it’s not just limited to physical machinery, but that it also comes in the form of programmes and algorithms. Artificial intelligence is a word we often hear – and for a good reason. What takes humans years to learn can be picked up by computers today in only a few hours.

One example of this is the music industry, where an algorithm was able to compose an entire music track of an exceptional standard – after only a brief period of analysis. We can expect to see similar trends in the fashion industry, with computers doing the design work, instead of creative and talented individuals.

A shift in the retail experience

The marketing of fashion products is also predicted to go through a radical change. With the app era in full swing, online shopping is becoming more common and has led to increased data analysis, meaning that you can be provided with personal recommendations based on your data (like your web history). This is all automated of course, right down to how products are delivered to you.

The need for retail work will be significantly reduced, and shops are expected to become nothing more than mere distribution centres for products, eliminating the entire human interaction experience.

Automatic marketing

Computers can create algorithms that offer better solutions than humans. This applies to marketing as well, where software can generate web publicity and content and forecast trends, such as if a product will be successful or not, or what the best way to advertise a new campaign is.

Humans may edit the final version of a marketing campaign, but it will be self-generated by the computer. This will put more jobs at risk, given how effective the software will become.

There is no doubt that automation is necessary in order for companies to compete with each other, and the whole process has made many things easier for businesses. Garments are produced at a much higher rate and with much better precision – and at a fraction of the cost. There is a tradeoff associated here though, which is the sharp decrease in human involvement. All of this may potentially result in the fashion industry ultimately losing the essential human touch – and its soul – in the process.

These changes are happening right now, and there is nothing that we can do to stop them. Automation in the industry is coming – and soon. Millions of jobs will be disrupted and more clothes will be introduced to a market that is already saturated.

There is one advantage in all of this, though: new technologies will be able to create better processes that use less water and energy, and which use more environmentally friendly chemicals and products. This will result in a more sustainable process, and more sustainable fabrics and garments. Technology itself is never bad; what’s important is being aware of the changes that the new era of automation will bring to the fashion industry, and making political – and consumer – choices that benefit both the environment and society as a whole.