A Life Of Shine – Mica’s back story
Cosmetics are supposed to be fun, a tool to help you express who you are, who you want to be, how you feel. With bright colours and soft textures to facilitate the telling of stories, celebrate beauty and frame natures perfection. That is why news articles such as that found in Melbourne newspaper ‘The Age’ on the weekend rock me so deeply.
The story in question is an expose on the mining industry and more specifically the mining of mica, that beautiful iridescent mineral that brings life and brilliance to make-up, wash products and hair sprays the world over. Mica its self isn’t the problem, it is the fact that children are involved in its mining.
Mica is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals found all over the world with the best cosmetic grade quality and highest quantity found in India. The properties and uses of mica vary depending on its structure and chemical make-up and that is determined by the environment in which the mica is formed.
Sheet Muscovite and phlogophite mica have low electrical conductivity and thermal resistance and as such are often used in electrical appliances. Other grades are ground into plasterboard, cements, fillers, paints or plastic while a third type is used to produce that iridescent shine in cosmetics and speciality coatings (car paints, consumer goods etc). In excess of 400 million tonnes or US $150 million are traded annually.
The story of cosmetic grade mica starts in West Bengal in an area called Jharkhand. This is a rich mining area with bauxite, coal, copper, iron ore and manganese up for grabs but despite the natural riches and recent industrialization and investment much of the population remain impoverished. So what is going wrong?
With its population of over 1.2 billion people India has a lot on its social welfare plate. Poverty rates are improving but still sit above 20% meaning that one in every five people can’t meet their basic human needs of food and shelter. Just how that ‘poverty line’ is drawn is of course political with different measures producing different results of which 20% is the most conservative.
Child Labour has long been a scar on India’s heart. Nobody wants to see their children working at all let alone seven days a week in dangerous conditions, being paid a pittance or in some cases being sold in order to pay family debts but it pays to remember that this is a push rather than a pull issue. The children are primarily pushed into work because of poverty – a need to eat, to afford shelter. It is easy to sit here in Australia and imagine that these children must be being pulled or lured into work by business seeking to save a few dollars. That isn’t to say that can’t happen either, more that it is just so complex an issue.
The Indian government acknowledges the problem and has been attempting to improve the status quo for its most vulnerable citizens for tens of years. However, the implementation of the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation act that came into law in 1986 has had little impact on the ground with conservative estimates putting the numbers at over 13 million currently. Putting that into perspective that is around half of the entire population of Australia – imagine every second person you know or meet to be a child laborer, working just to feed their family!
So back to the cosmetics industry and to mica, that glittering jewel that sparkles up our bottles, lipsticks, body washes and creams. The supply chain for this open cast mined mineral is complex. Companies own mines but miners work in gangs that are often family based. Families swap and change their workers so that they can keep one step ahead of the law. Why, because they have to. These family groups combine into gangs which are independently managed, the gangs contract to the mines the mines then form partnerships or deals with mineral processors (the mica has to be machined to make it reach cosmetic spec) and these processors then sell onto the multi-nationals for further processing or utilizing in production. It is very, very difficult to manage this paper trail from afar as there are always ways of making the paperwork tick the box even if reality doesn’t.
The situation on the ground is of great interest to the big players in the Cosmetics Industry with all of the multinationals engaging in triple-bottom-line accounting to their share holders. This includes supply chain issues such as workplace safety, child labour, sanitation, environmental stewardship and community outreach. That said Merck – a major supplier of mica to the cosmetics industry is no stranger to this issue having felt the wrath of the German people back in 2011 after it was found that their supply chain included the employment of children from a Jharkhand region mica mine. But it wouldn’t just be Merck that is affected by this. From my research I can’t find a single guarantee against child labour from mica miners in India despite the laws and good will for a positive outcome.
So could we avoid it while this problem is sorted out?
The cosmetics industry could do without new mica for a while. The USA is alleged to have amassed a stockpile of mica– I’m not sure if it is suitable for cosmetics but if it is we might be able to sparkle for years without the pain of a child’s blood on our hands. But is that the point?
Implementing change, enforcing laws, improving conditions all require more, not less money, more not less interest and that is why I feel the cosmetics industry needs to be part of an integrated solution rather than just wait around until the tide turns.
The Indian government has shown that they are more than willing and ready to take this issue seriously but they also know that isn’t enough. The non government organization sector of India is also highly active in this area with groups such as Bachpan Bachao Andolan working hard to make a difference on the ground by providing alternatives to work – school, food, shelter, guardianship. But it is still not enough.
The most important thing that we can do right now is to keep supporting the mica industry but in a way that shows where our loyalties lie. We need to find a way to demonstrate how much we value this precious material and how deeply we value the rights and welfare of the children and families that make it possible. We need to talk about this, put our money where our mouth is and encourage all sectors to work together to support a future that both India and we as consumers can be proud of. The how’s, where’s and when’s of this are a little more tricky to pinpoint right now as unlike the activity around say Palm Oil this is better hidden amongst the hustle and bustle of every-day life. No forests disappear, nothing goes extinct but slowly somewhere our hearts are bleeding just the same.
I haven’t finished with this story yet and will continue to try to fill in the gaps in terms of where the cosmetics industry sits and what we can do to help speed up this change but in the meantime I’ll continue to use and support mica. After all, there is only one thing worse than having to send your child to work in a dusty, dirty mine, having to watch them starve to death in front of you.
PS: I have references for this story and will add them to the article that can be purchased from my website. It takes a long time to fully research a piece like this and so I prefer not to just give it all away. I trust you understand.