The beauty industry is no stranger to moral debate, from animal testing and plastic pollution, to the perpetuation of unachievable standards; campaigns have been fought and won, and the ever-changing face of beauty has been forced to adapt to escape its ugly depths. Whilst consumers are becoming ever more conscious of their purchasing power and the impact their choices make on sustainability, the beauty industry continues to find new ways to exploit those who benefit the least – yet are the most vulnerable to its ethical bypassing.

Mica, the shimmery, flaky component that adds a sparkly texture to lipstick and eyeshadow created by brands like L’Oreal, who own, Maybelline, Urban Decay, Essie and NYX, is mined predominantly in North Eastern India, in the states of Jharkhand and Bihar. A recent study by Terre des Hommes at The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) in the Netherlands exposed the illegal mines operating across India where children are used and exploited. Often being forced to work in mines from the age of five and earning (at the upper end of the wage bracket) an average of 20 rupees (22p) per day. The mines are illegal following India’s banning of mica mining in 2017 and whilst the ban, an attempt to bring an end to the forced (mostly child) labour involved in mica mining, has drawn attention to the issue around the globe, much of the industry now operates illegal with no vetting or oversight from a governing body.

The mica mine shafts and tunnels can be as narrow as a rabbit hole in places, meaning children are required to gain access to the tightest areas of the mines. With ice picks or hammers, baskets and no physical protection, the children can spend all day, from sun rise to sun set, in the mines during the dry season. India currently provides 60% of global mica supply and for the impoverished North Eastern region, this offers a gainful income for many of the villages surrounding the mines. With mica mining, the deeper the depth of the mine, the larger the mica fragments that can be retrieved, consequently, the deeper the mine the higher the chances are of the tunnels collapsing and trapping or crushing the children working within them.

L’Oreal state in their Sustainable Policy on Mica Sourcing that they only use “verified and gated mines” and stress they are “committed to remain in India and ensure the traceability and transparency of its supply chain.” And following outcry over their use of untraced mica, Lush, a brand synonymous with welfare and rights, pulled out of India and now use only lab made shimmer.

Regardless of these sustainability measures, many mica mining communities remain entirely dependent on unregulated mines as their primary source of income. The Terre des Hommes report warns against a quick departure from mica mining countries following association with illegal mines, as this risks and encourages increased illegality within trade and further isolates miners. The report suggests companies with ties to forced, illegal or child mining should stay in the countries in which they currently operate and develop policies to protect miners and safeguard their rights.

A 2016 report by Reuters revealed that the traders who control the mines have been covering up deaths of children occurring during excavations, meaning families are being left without any opportunity to cremate their children – as many bodies are disposed of on site. Additionally, (supposedly) promised compensation payments of between 30,000 to 100,000 rupees (£320 – £1000) for the loss of a child are frequently missed or forgotten, leaving families not only without their loved ones but bereft of a sustainable source of income.

Currently and alarmingly, there are no assured standards for ethically sourced beauty products in the way there are for animal protection. The Leaping Bunny emblem, which can be seen on products cleared of animal testing or cruelty, does not exist in a human equivalent. And whilst many brands have implemented policies outlining their commitment to sustainably sourced mica, the industry remains largely unregulated. This, despite efforts by NGO’s and charities both in India and internationally, to put pressure on brands to safeguard the child victims of the mica trade and to offer viable sources of income for the communities most reliant on this precarious livelihood.

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