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#EarthDay: Sustainability and Hair Extensions

#EarthDay: Sustainability and Hair Extensions

As Black Women, our hair is deeply important to us. Whether you’re the type to go natural, dabble between braids and wigs, wear hijab or choose to cut it all off – our hair is a part of us. It’s not uncommon to hear a friend scroll through social media and see Black women commenting on how much they spend on their hair. According to Markets Insider, the global hair market is on track to generate revenues of $10 billion from 2018-2023.

With estimations of garnering $10 billion in the next 2 years, we have seen that the demand for hair extensions has increased. It’s almost impossible to not know someone with a hair business or see promotional activity for hair businesses on social media. Historically, the sector is extremely lucrative for Black Women, yet it’s unfortunate that many of our local hair shops aren’t even Black owned. Despite this, it’s important to consider how damaging synthetic hair is for our environment and even our health. It’s not uncommon to hear young Black Girls and Women complain about how itchy braids can be. It’s easier to blame the itching on a dry scalp but sometimes it’s more serious than that. Nowadays, it’s become more common for hairdressers to rinse the braiding hair in apple cider vinegar to prevent itching.

Photo courtesy of Ciara Imani May

Photo courtesy of Ciara Imani May

Rebundle has been created by Ciara Imani May, a US based social entrepreneur who is ‘creating space for Black Women in clean beauty where alternatives don’t exist.’ At Rebundle, a plant-based alternative (extracted banana fibre) is used to braid hair, rather than the usual kanekalon braiding hair. Companies like Rebundle remind us about the importance of being eco-friendly, even in our hair. Without adequate waste management, synthetic hair gets dumped in our environment and contributes to the destruction of the environment. Furthermore, synthetic hair tends to be made from acrylic or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), both which are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable plastics. What makes Rebundle even more impressive is their fight against single use plastic waste. As a way to reduce waste, consumers are able to send their used braiding hair to them and have the synthetic hair recycled into outdoor furniture and garden tools. So far, they have collected 165 lbs of plastic synthetic hair.

According to Rebundle, 1 in 3 women experience scalp irritation from using plastic synthetic hair, which can have dangerous impacts on our health. In 2019, a Twitter thread went viral and exposed how the renown braiding brand, Xpression, caused irritation and scalp damage, which could be attributed to poor manufacturing. The site also notes that “we’re often forced to choose between enduring the pain and discomfort with at-home remedies or taking the braids down, resulting in a loss of time and money.” Furthermore, Rebundle pride themselves on being one of the first beauty brands to address “health and environmental disparities in the hair extensions industry”, which is extremely important, as many ingredients compiled in extensions are very damaging and as noted by the hair brand, we deserve alternatives too that don’t harm the environment or damage our health. Similarly, Assumpta Kasabuli, a Kenyan based entrepreneur uses sisal fibres as an alternative for synthetic extensions that derive from plastic, following the outlaw of single use plastic in 2017.

As important as sustainability is, it’s vital to take into account how pricing impacts our ability to purchase more sustainable products. It’s more feasible to purchase a £2 pack of braiding hair from the local African shop than it is to regularly purchase eco-friendly hair extensions. Hair products aside, pricing is usually the main barrier for people wanting to transition into a more sustainable hairstyle, whether it is hair extensions, cleaner beauty products or fashion. Due to this, it’s more difficult for Black Women who want to become more conscious consumers to choose between cost effective hair at the expense of the environment.

If braids aren’t for you and you prefer to wear wigs, RadSwan is changing the narrative by bringing innovation and importantly, sustainability, to the synthetic hair market. For RadSwan, conscious quality is central to their philosophy, especially given the nature of the exploitative human hair market.

Rebundle’s “better braid” eco-friendly hair extensions are made of extracted banana fiber. The biodegradable material can be disposed of through composting. Photo courtesy of Rebundle

Rebundle’s “better braid” eco-friendly hair extensions are made of extracted banana fiber. The biodegradable material can be disposed of through composting. Photo courtesy of Rebundle

The alternative to synthetic braiding hair or synthetic wigs, in general, would be human hair. This has been increasingly common in the past few years and we are seeing young Black Women succeed in the wig business, whether it started off as a hobby, these women are becoming entrepreneurs whilst being a student. Considering that there is no ethical consumption, the current hair industry is designed to exploit poor and vulnerable women in countries such as Vietnam and India – women and girls sell their hair for as little as £2 – but the retail price is in the hundreds. This doesn’t happen only in Asia but in South American countries such as Venezuela whereby, women and girls are attacked with scissors, resulting in their hair being cut off and sold. The lack of regulation in the hair industry makes it easy for young people to be exploited, to the extent, that some remain oblivious about the ethics of how their hair is obtained. The unregulated nature of the industry is littered with scammers who prey on vulnerable women in the Global South and severely under-pay them.

Whilst human hair is more environmentally friendly and sustainable in comparison to synthetic hair, the ethics behind it must be interrogated. Just because something is sustainable does not mean it is ethical. Since it’s not exactly easy to hear first person accounts from women who sold their hair, a Refinery29 video provides a short insight into the experience of some women. This particular video shares first-hand accounts by women, revealing how and why they sold their hair, oftentimes to provide money for their family.

As consumers and stewards of the earth, we must continue to be aware of how our hair – whether synthetic or not – has an impact on our health, the environment and other women.

Written By: Bashirat Oladele – a freelance writer in London who enjoys writing about pop culture, entertainment and politics. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Stylist, Cosmopolitan and other publications.

Header Image: @artbyfunmi

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Staffed by a team of international Black female and non-binary writers, penning crucial and critical commentary at the intersection of race and gender.

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