Wigging Out: Movement Growing for Ethical Hair Supply Chains

This is my hair. I bought it.

Weft of Cambodian virgin Remy hair. Via contributor

I purchased two wefts of what was advertised as 100% virgin Remy hair for just over $350 from an online retailer. If you think that anything about that statement is crazy, understand that neither the price nor my purchase of human hair extensions is uncommon. In fact, the cost of 100% human hair extensions in the US starts around $150 a bundle, and analysts project continued growth over the next five years for this already mature market. Brick and mortar hair retailers in the US raked in $346.5 mill in 2017, with human hair accounting for 20% of sales. The US hair extension industry is believed to be nearing value in the trillions when factoring online sales and adjacent services.

Split Ends

There is widespread unfamiliarity about the sourcing process for human hair extensions. While processors and suppliers assign a country of origin such as India, Malaysia, or Cambodia to hair extensions, consumers often have no real idea from where the hair comes. Ambiguity about the origins of such a widely purchased luxury product has prompted some to explore human hair supply chains. In 2009, Chris Rock made a documentary that shed light on the origins of African American hair products including extensions, titled Good HairRefinery29 also joined a recent resurgence in interest in hair extensions by exploring the lives of women who cut their hair in source countries.

Texture selections on supplier Mayvenn’s website. Via Mayvenn.com

Realities of the Hair Extension Industry

Asian countries lead the pack of top human hair exporters with India, Hong Kong, and Singapore all in the top five in 2017. (The US holds the top position for hair exports and imports). Following the supply chain backward, Louisiana ranks third in US online searches for hair extensions. It’s a short search as online and service-based retailers of hair extensions are now in the 10s of thousands. Hair vending has become a popular entrepreneurial venture, with suppliers actively recruiting distributors to sell hair. Increasing familiarity with sites such as Alibaba.com and Globalsources.com has also streamlined the connections between US demand and global suppliers.

If a purchaser of hair in the US has ever questioned the quality of the hair they received, it is not an uncommon practice for hair to come from places like barbershop floors, drains, and brushes. Synthetics fibers and chemicals are also added during processing.  Dubious brokers then falsely sell knock-offs as genuine virgin Remy hair. For the record: virgin hair refers to hair that is not chemically processed and Remy refers to hair that is not dyed, permed or bleached. Both are likely to come from a single donor. Poor women historically were, and continue to be a primary source of quality hair extensions. Refinery29 found that women in Vietnam may receive as little as $2 for locks that are sold at markups as high as 7000% by the time they reach the US. Hair donated as a show of faith at Hindu temples in India is considered the most ethical sources of hair. The operations of the industry as a whole are mostly unregulated in all countries, making practices little known and dubiously maintained.

Hair supply chain route to the US. Via Allure.com

Ethical Hair Supply Chains

A growing movement is calling for ethical practices at every stage of the hair supply chain. Fair Hair Care has set a mission to educate consumers and transform them into advocates for global quality standards for hair. Founder Christina Adesina believes transparency in sourcing and processing quality hair is key to the sustainability of the industry. GreenBiz offers additional ways the industry can support ethical global supply chains. Suggestions include developing long-term relationships between retailers and suppliers, and suppliers completing due diligence to ensure fair labor practices during processing and sourcing. Companies like Remy New York and Woven.com are paving the way by being amongst the first to build brands around supplying and retailing ethically sourced fair trade hair. Remy New York, in particular, has paid donors more than fives the market average for their hair.

As more US consumers become aware of the realities of the hair extension industry and younger consumers continue to call for ethical products, there is hope that there will continue to be a shift in practices along the hair supply chain. Doing so is likely to reduce knock-offs and provide greater transparency to consumers. It is yet to be seen, however, if ethical practices will impact the price consumers pay. If I should purchase weave again, I’ll be more conscious of the journey my hair takes.

Aundrea Gregg is an MBA candidate at the Tulane University Freeman School of Business.