Material World: Hair is big money

Long luxuriant hair has long been associated with femininity and beauty in many cultures. It is described as a woman’s crowning glory. The rising demand for human hair means more and more suppliers and many from dubious sources. The lucrative extension industry is booming worth billions of dollars a year. Human hair is a commodity. Hair is big money. The global hair wigs and extension market is estimated to reach revenues of more than $10 billion by 2023. In 2016, imports to the US alone were a business of almost $700 million. Synthetic hair, although natural looking is not as versatile in that it cannot be heat-styled, curled or straightened. Perhaps the synthetic hair technology will eventually catch up and make fake hair indistinguishable from the real thing but for now a good quality wig made of human hair sells for thousands of dollars in the United States, and hair extensions made of real hair can sell for several hundred or thousand dollars.

It is not the intent of this article to shame anyone for wearing wigs and extensions; the ability to transform yourself through one’s hair can be positive and empowering. We all know a friend who suffers from alopecia or undergoing cancer treatment causing loss of hair and the psychological pain felt.

That being said, it is important to consider who is providing the product. Hair extensions and weaves have now become a must-have fashion accessory and stories of unethical practices abound in the developing and undeveloped countries. Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages and small towns in Asia, South America, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. It’s an unregulated industry built on exploitation. There are reports of husbands or partners coercing women into selling their hair. But one source is from Hindu temples, and those in institutions like orphanages or prisons. The human hair imported is not classed as a body part so it is exempt from regulations. It’s nearly impossible to determine whether it’s been willingly donated or not. Those who market the hair insist it is a consensual commercial transaction between hair gatherers and the females who want to sell their hair.

Hair harvested is disinfected, steamed, boiled, dyed and sewn. Each step further erases any traces of its original owner. Salon clients care about the price; they don’t care about the origin, they don’t want to think about the women who grew their hair and had it shorn that led to it landing on their head. Few customers wish to question the supply chain and the dealers are reluctant to reveal how they acquired the hair. It is the price that counts. Hair is now just another luxury item like makeup or expensive clothes. The desire for long, thick hair is a lot stronger than any sense of guilt.

One well-known source of hair is Indian women. At Hindu temples they will have their heads shaved as part of a sacred ritual called tonsuring, a sign of religious devotion and humility. The temples then sell the shorn to traders who will then process and ship it all over the world. Indian temples are said to make more than several millions a year in hair sales.

However, US Customs and Border Protection have seized consignments of tons of hair suspected to have come from interned Uighurs in the Xinjiang province of China.

When companies are buying goods because they seem like they’re lower price, a really great deal, I would recommend that they really look into why the goods are such a great deal, said Ana Hinojosa with US Customs and Border Protection.

For a long time, the presumption about goods coming into the US, was that they weren’t made with forced labor,’ said Sophie Richardson with Human Rights Watch. Now the presumption about goods coming to us from Xinjiang is that they have been made with forced labor, and it’s up to the companies to prove that they weren’t’ (

To Tim Hazledine, a professor of economics at Auckland University, the hair trade is effectively farming humans.’ It may be a renewable resource, but it grows slowly and to keep up with increasing demand ‘there must be a lot of people whose hair is getting cut out there’.

Women in developed nations aren’t as desperate to sell their hair for cash as poorer women in developing countries where women and girls can be ‘sheared, one after the other, like sheep.


Socialist Standard October 2020

Leave a Reply