As the disposable income of western consumers is growing, so is the share of the beauty industry. While new beauty trends storm the high-street shops and social media, the head-spinning multi-million beauty acquisitions are becoming somewhat the norm. But it’s not only the cosmetic industry that is growing. From aesthetic procedures to accessories to hair extensions and wigs sales are on the rise. As of October 2016, the market value of the wig industry is estimated to be $224m and is expected to grow steadily over the next five years.
Known to have been used in ancient Egypt, wigs have become a daily accessory for many today. Those not in favour of wigs are often opting in for hair extensions – be it natural or synthetic. Providing almost endless colours and styles, wigs and hair extensions are here to stay. But at what cost to sustainability?
Wigs basics: natural wigs
For those who won a ‘genetic lottery’ and are not familiar with the industry – in simple terms – the natural hair commands a higher price on the market and has been in the centre of the ‘Ethical’ debate for some time now. The wig made of natural hair is more demanding in terms of maintenance but will outlive the synthetic wig by at least six months.
Wigs basics: synthetic wigs
More affordable options are made of synthetic materials but don’t last as long as natural hair. Synthetic wigs typically last 4-6 months of daily use, while heat-friendly synthetic wigs usually only last approximately 3 months. Still, shiny and no-frizz, the artificial hair is known for its low maintenance and affordability. It is true, a lot of wigs – and extensions’ – users are guided mainly by the price and widely covered ‘ethical’ factor in their choice of ‘headpiece’. Not willing to contribute to potentially unethical hair harvesting, a lot of ‘environmentally aware customers’ prefer synthetic wigs and extensions.
Sadly, the short-term affordability and short-sighted ‘ethical gain’ come with a hefty price tag in terms of sustainability and environmental impact.
The boom in petrochemical-derivate materials has seemingly unleashed the beast of consumerism. Fancy fleeces, faux fur, wigs and hair extensions have all become unbelievably affordable and have transformed fashion and beauty industries. Promoted further by so-called ‘environmentalists’ and anti-cruelty groups, the man-made materials – as we now know – can cause more harm to the environment than they do good.
Disposal and Shocking Figures
As it stands, synthetic hair wigs are made of finest quality plastic fibers, usually polyester, acrylic, or polyvinyl. One person who uses wigs on a daily basis for, say 40 years, can easily go through 80 wigs in a lifetime. These ‘fashion accessories’ are not recyclable and mostly non-biodegradable. The synthetic bio-degradable wigs that are available on the market can reach several thousand in price and make up a very small part of the market.
In other words, it will be safe to assume that all wigs will spend the rest of their days in a landfill. How many days, exactly, is yet unknown but there is evidence to suggest that it will take at least 500 years for petrochemical products to decompose; though petrochemical products like these never fully biodegrade. The chemicals will just stay in the soil for an indefinite number of years.
One might argue that the volume of the synthetic hair waste is so marginal that it doesn’t deserve a mention. A simple school-level calculation, however, will prove that this is not the case.
The 80 wigs – that one person might use in a lifetime – would weigh on average 1kg each, totaling in 80kg of non-recyclable plastic weight generated throughout a person’s lifetime. The weight of an average adult man, or an estimated weight of 3,478 plastic bottles.
Put in numbers, the true scale of the impact to the environment is becoming more apparent. One thing that sets plastic bottles and synthetic hair apart is the fact that plastic bottle can actually be recycled as opposed to synthetic hair.
In an effort to find out the industry professionals’ stance on the issue, I contacted Mynewhair with four questions. Mynewhair “is the pioneering new charity founded by and inspired by Trevor Sorbie MBE. The charity provides a public advice and support a national network of independent salons and professionals who provide a wig styling service…” I enquired whether the training touches upon the subject of recycling and what option they would recommend for environmentally aware consumers – whose numbers are on the rise.
The response clearly reflects the prevailing ignorance within the industry. “Unfortunately mynewhair doesn’t feel that it would be best placed to provide any commentary for your article. Mynewhair specialises in supporting those with medical hair loss by training stylists to provide wig cutting services. The charity does not feel that it could comment on the environmental impact of synthetic wigs.”
Mynewhair online guide “Advise and support if you lost hair” doesn’t touch upon the disposal or recycling of wigs either. Evidently, environmental matters don’t make part of ‘pioneering’ Mynewhair training and are not on the meeting agenda.
It is not a secret that a big share of people with medical hair loss has undergone cancer treatment. It is also a widely accepted fact that man-made plastic, once disposed of, will be releasing more carcinogens and mutagens into the soil and the atmosphere.
The problem of plastic recycling is gaining more attention from the wider public and scientists. However, not all industries have caught up. Talking to some hair stylists and ‘training organisations’ has proven to be a futile exercise. Being protective of its reputation, no one seemingly wants to answer hard questions – or thought about it much.