One of the most significant victories of capitalism is its ability to co-opt feminism into its structures. Make-up is now lauded as an empowering product, that gives people immense confidence, especially by the advertisers. Make-up itself is a multi-billion-dollar industry and the demand for cosmetics has soared over the years. But as in the clothing industry, the cosmetic industry too has a very dark side to it.
Mica, an essential ingredient for make-up, primarily comes from child-labour in India. Mica is used in eyeshades, lipsticks, mascara, nail polish, blush and many such cosmetic products. 60% of the high-quality mica that goes into the cosmetic industry is sourced from India and most of it comes from scrap mining. Many cosmetic companies such as L’Oréal, which is also the parent company of another cosmetic brand called Maybelline, source mica from India. Most of mica mines were shut two decades ago due to its environmental impacts and only a few legal ones operate today.
However, up to 20,000 children still work in many illegal mica mines, from Jharkand and Bihar, as said by an article by The Guardian. Jharkhand and Bihar have been called ‘Mica’ belts from the colonial times by the British. Once an opportunity for profit is seen, almost nothing can stop corporations from extracting it. Accordingly, thousands of children, many aged as young as five years, go on collecting Mica in their baskets, after which they give it to a local exporter. The children spend the whole day toiling and earn only about 20 to 30 rupees for their work. This is the way in which they earn their bread and butter and support their families.
However, as is evident, child labour is a massive human rights violation. Many of the children involved in mica mining are not able to attend schools. Not to mention the health risks that come with this, including the imminent danger of the mine collapsing on top of them. This has happened many times, where children get trapped after the walls of the mine collapse. In 2016, an investigation by Thomas Reuters Foundation showed that many children died in India due to scrap mining in illegal mica mines, and these deaths were covered up. The children who spend all day finding the shiny glitter do not even know where it is heading or what it is used for. After giving it to the local exporters, it is mostly sent to China and, after that, to many European and American companies.
The supply chain of cosmetics is not appropriately regulated. It’s said that each cosmetic product may have 100 ingredients that are coming from all over the world. In 2009, the company Merck KGaA was exposed to using child-labour in India for mica, and since then, the company has tried to get over its bad publicity by tying up with Bachpan Bachao Andolan. This is often referred to as the ‘Mica Scandal’. Many cosmetic companies tried to rectify its supply chain after this scandal, but it proved to be difficult. Lush, the cosmetic company which is supposed to be ethical, also found it very difficult to clean up its supply chain after the scandal as getting mica proved challenging. So, this begs the question, can these industries, be it cosmetic or clothing, survive without the labour of the marginalized?
Adding a Feminist Perspective
It is also worth thinking about the feminist aspect of how it is being marketed. When make-up is said to be empowering, who is it empowering? The ones who make profits off of it? There needs to be a more in-depth look into the empowerment messages we see online given by brands. The de-radicalisation of feminism and the co-option of it into the market in such a cunning manner is one of the unfortunate victories of such big brands.
The same could be said for our clothing industries too where in sweatshops there are mass human rights violations and gender-based violence. However, feminism as a movement is a movement for the oppressed. Hence, industries that exploit the most vulnerable must not be allowed to use revolutionary labels such as feminism to sell their products. Feminism cannot be emancipatory if a child is toiling to get us the shimmer we want for that outfit/look.
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Of course, there are ethical make-up products that can be used; it is important to switch to these brands. Using alternative brands that are able to account for their ingredients being sourced by ethical means is essential. Putting pressure on brands to correct their practices is one way in which these practices can be stopped. We need to hold them accountable as brands try to step up when they get bad publicity. This is our responsibility if we want to be consumers of any products.
Dharika just completed her studies in International Relations and Communications. She is always reading books and making lists of books to read. Her research interests are in International Politics, Political History, Gender Studies and Refugee Studies.