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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

19 December 2012

All that glitters – Behind the supply chain of hair extensions

Contributor Responsible Trade Worldwide: Expert Columnist

Hair extensions

Big hair is big business these days but where does 'donated' human hair used for extensions originate? Responsible Trade Worldwide offers a glimpse into the largely unregulated hair extensions supply chain.

The global market for hair extensions is expanding at an incredible rate, much like the celebrity hairdos in magazines. Hair has been ‘donated’ for use by others for centuries, but the increasing customer demand for thicker hair is prompting suppliers to source more human hair than ever before.

As conscious consumers, it’s important for us to know the journey our purchases take to reach us, so we can choose only sustainably sourced and ethically manufactured goods. But how mindful are we of the hair we share?

Unsettlingly, there are no standards or monitoring of the procurement of hair around the world. As a result, hair may be taken against people’s will or understanding of what will happen to it.

So what do we need to be aware of when it comes to the hair we share? And what can be done to ensure the big business of hair extensions remains honourable as well as profitable?

Big hair is big business these days. From The Only Way is Essex to newly-vampiric Bella in Twilight, the bouffs on our screens are growing before our eyes. And like any fashionable trend, we can’t get enough of the Cheryl Cole voluminous hairstyle, so it’s no surprise that hair extensions are here to stay.

The UK is now the third largest importer [1] of human hair in the world, with £38 million [2] worth entering the country in 2011 and 70% market growth in the last 5 years. As we enter the Christmas party season, salons all over the UK are heaving with women seeking full, luscious locks with the help of extensions.

The question is not at what cost is this demand being met, but at whose?

Underneath the thick tresses lies a darker story. There are reports of Russian prisoners having their heads shaved against their will, and the unsavoury harvesting of hair from corpses to cash in on the burgeoning trade.

We at Responsible Trade Worldwide [3] are all for recycling, but such practices are clearly unacceptable. The decision to boycott (and report) a salon using hair extensions sourced in these ways would be an easy one.

In 2011, it the Tirumla Temple in India reportedly made 2000m Rupees [4] (more than £22m) from auctioning the hair of women and children that had been given in prayer and sacrifice.

This is where the decision becomes less black and white – when hair is given willingly, to all intents and purposes, but for different or unfortunate reasons. Ron King, L’Oreal Professional Stylist and spokesman says: “Hair that is taken from people…without knowing the reason behind it, I consider to be unethical.”

We’re reminded of poor Fantine in the musical and upcoming film, Les Misérables, who shaves her head and sells the hair to pay for her daughter’s care in poverty-stricken times. Hair historian Caroline Cox says: “Working-class women’s hair [has been] used to bedeck the heads of those who are more privileged…for hundreds of years.”

Medieval and distasteful it may seem to some, but it does pose a moral dilemma for the consumer. That is, of course, if they have access to the truth about how their extensions were procured in the first place. Aside from a few hair-raising stories in the media, it’s doubtful that salons or their customers – perhaps even the wholesalers – are aware of how freely the extensions they buy are given. The sourcing end of the supply chain can be convoluted and shrouded, making it hard for those seeking answers to find them.

The market remains highly unregulated [5], and although today’s buyers are asking to know when and how goods are sourced – particularly their food and clothing – there just isn’t the transparency yet to educate consumers about all products in this way.

But we can try to become wiser about the hair we wear. Through further research, raising awareness and talking to our hair stylists, we can make sure the issue stays on the ethical beauty radar.

Responsible Trade Worldwide will be back in January, so in the meantime we hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Written on behalf of Responsible Trade Worldwide by Natalia Baker

Read more from Responsible Trade Worldwide, here – Is Ethical shopping headed for the mainstream?


1. Reuters | Human Hair Trade Soars on Celebrity Hairdo Envy | 2011 | [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/03/us-human-hair-trade-idUSTRE7723U520110803

2, The Guardian | The Hair Trade’s Dirty Secret | 2012 | [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/oct/28/hair-extension-global-trade-secrets

3. Responsible Trade Worldwide | Find Out What Your Workforce is Really Saying | 2012 | [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.responsibletradeworldwide.com/

4. The Guardian | The Hair Trade’s Dirty Secret | 2012 | [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/oct/28/hair-extension-global-trade-secrets

5. Article Snatch | What are Ethical Hair Extensions | 2012 | [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.articlesnatch.com/Article/What-Are-Ethical-Hair-Extensions-/3478501#.ULNAtIdrhgm

6. Image | Hair Extensions Clip In Blog | [ONLINE] Available at:

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