Menu Menu

Wigs are booming despite a steep ethical price tag

The desire for authentic human hair wigs is growing rapidly thanks to pop culture, but the flashing lights of the red carpet are blinding consumers to the dark secrets of the hair trade.

Outside of the Black community, wig-wearing among white women was almost exclusively reserved for fancy dress parties, religious practices, or as a solution for hair loss.

Wigs previously held connotations of beauty deception, masking your identity, or false advertising, but in the last ten years attitudes have rapidly changed.

For many, wigs have now become the new handbag – a carefully curated accessory worn to elevate any outfit. A high quality, custom wig can be worth thousands, making them a newfound status symbol in popular culture.

While Black women have been wearing wigs for decades – think Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj – the hair industry experienced serious growth when celebrities such as Paris Hilton and the Kardashian-Jenner clan began normalising the practice among white women.

These high-level pop culture names routinely display their wig collections online and don colourful inches on the red carpet.

Instagram has been flooded with wig artists, armed with knowledge and skill to produce custom wigs for anyone willing to pay a healthy price. This shift of wig-wearing from taboo into the mainstream has led to the global wig industry to be worth an estimated £7.9 billion by 2023.

So, as the demand for human hair wigs continues to grow and temporary long-flowing locks become a fashion statement, it begs the question: where does the hair come from?

The not-so-glamourous truth is that a large majority of the hair on sale in beauty supply stores and salons comes from the poorest communities of Asia and eastern Europe.

Agents visit these countries, targeting poverty-stricken women who exchange their hair for only a couple of pounds, which will later be resold on the other side of the world for thousands.

Despite these regions sharing the view of long locks as a beauty standard, women in deprived areas have little choice but to part with their hair in order to support their families.

Reports of women in India being pressured by their husbands to sell their hair is not uncommon. In some cases, women are further exploited, being held down while their hair is chopped, stolen, and sold overseas without any financial return.

These exploitative practices sharply contrast the image presented in popular culture, with wigs adorning the heads of the world’s most powerful, wealthy, and influential women.

An alternative to human hair is synthetic wigs, and while these offer a more affordable solution to the issue, they cannot be styled using heat.

Efforts in sustainability question the practice of buying synthetic wigs, as they are primarily made from non-recyclable materials such as polyester, polyvinyl, or acrylic. This leaves celebrities, influencers, and stylists to choose between two evils ­– if it bothers them at all.

As we have seen before, large business conglomerates will continue down the path of exploiting the less fortunate until consumers demand a fairer method of operation.

Claire Flack is the director of Wigs and Warpaint, a wig-fitting service in Sheffield, who is emphasizing the importance over more governance in the wig industry.

It says enough that in a single year, HM Revenue and Customs recorded imports of more than £38 million worth of both animal and human hair, making the UK the third biggest importer of hair in the world.

Last year, 13 tons of human hair was seized by US customs, which were believed to come from Uyghur prisoners held in Chinese internment camps.

The wig industry continues to solidify its importance in fashion, LGBTQ communities, and amongst those who simply want to change their look for a night out.

Several sustainable hair brands have emerged in response to the increased demand for human hair.

Great Lengths and Woven Hair are two companies on a mission to source hair ethically, however the evidence of unethical sourcing of human hair warrants a stronger awareness and demand for a larger sustainable business model.

As the desire for human hair grows, so should our questions about where and how these pieces are sourced.

The wig industry is another example of how the trends promoted by the affluent result in stripping the dignity and humanity of people in poorer nations. It is clear that more work needs to be done to regulate the practices of the beauty industry.