Controversial truth underlying multimillion-dollar hair extension industry

By Thu Ngan   November 2, 2018 | 02:00 pm GMT+7

When it comes to hair extensions, people may think about a quick and easy beauty solution to ladies in a special occasion. 

They call it a billion-dollar industry. According to the Guardian newspaper, in Britain sales are up to £60 million ($78.72 million) a year and growing. 

But what lies underneath is a global tale of exploitation. 

Since the 1900s, when the hair trade boomed in western countries, controversy has surrounded it as to how hair is collected. 

Advocates see it as an amicable sale in that where there is demand supply appears. Critics view it as grotesque and controversial. 

In developing countries rich in culture and customs such as Vietnam, India, Malaysia, and Cambodia, women really love long and glorious tresses. It should come as no surprise if you see a woman gently combing out a knot and massaging her strands with coconut oil in the early morning. It remains a tradition marker of beauty though it takes time and meticulousness.  

A Vietnamese woman named Nguyen Thi Thuy in the series about hair extensions of Refinery29. 

A Vietnamese woman named Nguyen Thi Thuy in the series about hair extensions of Refinery29. 

More importantly the industry has not grown or been regulated in these places. Therefore, over the years, women like Thuy (pictured above) have been targets for hair traders. She said the highest amount she has ever been offered is VND70,000 ($3) while the cost, as estimated by the Guardian, in an upmarket central London salon is around £900 ($1,180). So, what if she agrees and falls victim to that exploitation? 

These foreign collectors target people who are hard up and desperate to sell their hair. They fall victim to this business as they need money to survive. 

The invisible chain of labor

Years ago hair extensions were something only celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, that iconic global fashion symbol, knew about. However, these days they are popular among ordinary working women and even teenagers. 

For example, an average visit to a hair salon for hair extensions in America costs $500 to $2,000. Whereas the original owner might receive only $40 for one or two bundles of 100 grams. This is enough to buy rice for nearly two months. Economically viewed, it is an amicable exchange. 

On the surface, everything seems to be alright since this is the way demand and supply work. However, if you dig deeper, you will find what you discover hard to believe. In fact, hair vendors are scouting every village in the world for virgin hair which has never been dyed, blow-dried or straightened. 

This article does not attack the tonsuring or collection of hair in temples since this practice can be seen as a donation rather than a deal. Photo by Jns/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

This article does not attack the tonsuring or collection of hair in temples since this practice can be seen as a donation rather than a deal. Photo by Jns/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

In the villages, young girls with beautiful tresses are found, a price is agreed upon and long ponytails are snipped of instantly. This is acceptable in that they depend on this for a living. At least temporarily their desperation is eased though, as we have analyzed, the price is incredibly cheap and it is not a fair deal any more.

However, demand far outstrips supply: up to 10,000 extensions are exported to the U.S. every week enabled by lax regulations. Hence, no one cares about their origins or really knows if the hair is willingly donated or not. Donors become stuck in this chain of labor. In other words, they are essentially invisible. 

Hair industry exploits women due to their invisibility

The exploitation results from a shortage of hair to meet the demands of customers out there. To overcome that hardship, hair companies either fake it by chemically processing strands from any source they can find (normally, they would choose two kinds of hair with similar textures and features such as Indian hair and Brazilian hair) or purchase hair from sources that cannot be traced. 

For the sake of money, people even resort to armed robbery of hair. It is not very hard to find stories of women and children being attacked for their hair at gun or knifepoint. Take a quick look on YouTube at "Women robbed off hair at gunpoint in Venezuela" on CNN News. Similar incidents also happen in India, South Africa, Ukraine, Myanmar, and so forth. 

There is no lack of stories about women and children attacked for their hair. With a click you can see how crazy this industry is. Photo from YouTube.

There is no lack of stories about women and children attacked for their hair. With a click you can see how crazy this industry is. Photo from YouTube.

No action is taken and the door is still left open for this to take place all over the world by criminals with a view to making a quick buck from virgin hair. The industry continues to boom while potential threats are posed and the sufferers are those who are desperate. 

Disgusting as it may be, it is worth reporting that there are quite a few incidents of girls trying to run and are dragged back by their parents to finish the deal. Others choose silence in their helpless fight against this traumatic event. On the surface it is an ordinary event without any harm to the child because the families get paid, but if you are in the girls’ shoes, you might understand how grim it is.

A survey done by the Alternative Daily shows that even though the participants know exploitation is more than likely, there is little they can do while living in a small town and making ends meet by farming or fishing. They just do whatever they can to feed themselves and their families. 

"As a way of life, the more disenfranchised the women, the less these dealers will offer for good hair they can easily flip", said Nguyen Dinh, CEO of hair company Ivirgo. 

Dream to challenge hair exploitation 

With Vietnamese gradually becoming familiar with the concept of selling their hair for money, hair extension start-ups are mushrooming. As a business, they all have to do their best to make profits and remain in business. However, as local hair vendors, what they offer hair sellers is surely superior to what others do. 

Take for instance Ivirgo hair, the pioneer in the manufacture and export of Vietnamese hair extensions. In a distorted market where fair price is not well defined, Ivirgo hair desires to make the hair trade scrupulous.

Ivirgo CEO Nguyen Dinh and his dedicated team.

Ivirgo CEO Nguyen Dinh and his dedicated team.

The firm stated that most people do not and cannot know where hair comes from. Therefore, its hopes its appearance will change the situation. At the same time Vietnamese donors can get what they deserve to meet their basic needs in life. 

Increasingly in the list of reliable hair vendors in Vietnam, we have the right to expect a promising future in which hair donors can enjoy a reasonable deal. It is also a good thing for the county’s economic growth, the firm said. 

Photo from Refinery 29.

Photo from Refinery 29.

The emergence of hair companies like Ivirgo does brighten the life of poor women like Thuy. From now on she can sell her hair to a business that will support her family for many years to come.

 
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