The child labour in our makeup bags

The child labour in our makeup bags

By Morgan Theakston, Advocacy Campaigns and Communications Manager

Behind the glamorous façade of “cruelty-free” beauty products lies a reality so cruel that it’s been concealed for decades. Advocacy Campaigns and Communications Manager, Morgan Theakston, on World Vision’s latest report, which reveals millions of children toil to provide ingredients to the cosmetics industry.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children are dying in collapsed mine shafts while digging copper for high-tech serums to help people delay ageing. In India, more than 20,000 children work deep underground, risking injury and diseased lungs to dig for mica, the glittery mineral that adds shimmer to eye shadows and blush and prevents foundation from caking. People are sold the dream of everlasting youth, while these children are stripped of theirs.

Cocoa butter and shea butter have long been synonymous with a warm hug for the skin, but behind the sweet scents are children toiling on farms in West Africa. In Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire, where New Zealand sources 27% of its cocoa, more than 2 million children, some of whom have been trafficked, wield machetes to clear land and collect cocoa pods.

And the palm oil that makes eyeliner, foundation, shampoo, and lip balm luxuriously smooth? Last year, nearly all of New Zealand’s palm oil came from plantations across Indonesia and Malaysia, where children hack down palm fruits and lug heavy sacks in blistering heat. In our beauty products, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding behind more than 200 derivative names including Palmitate, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, and Stearic Acid.

The guise of sustainability.

Growing concerns about perceived toxins in synthetic ingredients has fueled demand for products with organic and natural ingredients, while environmental consciousness has boosted the popularity of sustainable products. But “natural” and “organic” just mean mined and farmed ingredients, and a product wrapped in recycled plastic can be labelled “sustainable” without an ounce of consideration for the human toll.

It’s ironic that products labelled “cruelty-free”, “sustainable”, or “clean + planet positive” can still contain ingredients harvested by children. Of all children worldwide, nearly 1 in 10 children are in child labour, with majority working in agriculture.

New Zealand is part of the problem

New Zealanders like to think of ourselves as fair and equitable, but we are most certainly part of the problem. Last year, New Zealand imported numerous cosmetic ingredients from countries where child labour and slavery is a known issue, including palm oil from Indonesia, cocoa from Ghana, and vanilla from Uganda and Papua New Guinea. We also imported $370M of cosmetic products likely connected to child labour given the complex web of supply chains.

Most of New Zealand’s cosmetics come from the United States, Australia, France, China and Korea, who source their ingredients from high-risk countries. For example, 98% of our mica comes from China, which imports a large portion of its mica from India. Sure, we can import makeup from the US and tell ourselves it’s safe, but that’s far from the reality.

Some of our favourite New Zealand brands promote themselves as cruelty-free but are tight lipped about where their ingredients are sourced. Are they free of child labour? It’s unclear, and many Kiwi companies likely don't know themselves.

Recent World Vision research revealed that nearly half of New Zealand companies lack visibility beyond their direct suppliers, and 70% have no initiatives to address modern slavery. A key reason for this is that New Zealand lacks a law that pushes companies to find out where their products are coming from ensure ethical sourcing.

The government has plans to change this.

The government recently announced they will begin drafting a modern slavery disclosure law that will require Kiwi businesses to report on modern slavery risks in their supply chains. While this is a positive step forward, the proposed law lacks an essential element—due diligence, which would mandate companies to take action to address the risks. Recent reviews of Australia and the UK’s modern slavery laws have strongly recommended incorporating due diligence to make the law effective in addressing slavery. The government has said they are committed to introducing due-diligence requirements in the future, but the timeline remains unclear. World Vision hopes to see all political parties make a time-bound commitment to incorporating due diligence.

Beauty doesn’t have to mean pain

Learning about the egregious child labour behind products we use shouldn’t cripple us with guilt, it should move us to action. The sustainable, organic, and cruelty-free rhetoric from so many cosmetics companies is just skin deep. The global cosmetics sector is projected to grow 23% by 2028. But until New Zealand introduces both modern slavery disclosure and due diligence legislation to foster accountability, cosmetics companies will be lining their pockets while children are trapped in slavery and Kiwis are kept in the dark about the products they buy.

The irony, once again, is rife: an industry that sells us beauty is mired in ugliness. While we’ve likely all winced at the price tags on makeup products, it’s the children we don’t see who are paying the steepest price. Working long hours in the heat, in the rain, under the ground, in the dark for a pittance or worse, for nothing. And it begs the question - how much are we willing to pay for beauty?