Not All That Glitters is Gold

There’s something about today that feels like molasses; deeply thick and viscous that sticks to the arms of the clock and slows time down so that every second feels tangible. I feel like a fly encased in amber as I sit at my desk and watch as the afternoons grow shorter as we move further and further past fall and into winter. By the time four o’clock rolls around I can begin to see the shifting of the light as the first rays of golden hour begin to pour down from the sky.  

Now everything is amber, and I am free. 

I manage to break away from the sinewy syrup of the office and make my way to my car to begin the hour and a half-long journey home. Golden hour is in full force by this time and everything is a stunning array of rich warm light that shines brilliantly off of everything; the winding road, the surrounding cars and every building that we pass. It’s beautiful, but it’s blinding.  

Like, really blinding.  

Regardless of my sunglasses, sun visor and raised arm that had begun to cramp approximately seven miles ago, the honey-colored light is unrelenting in its desire to burn out my retinas in the awesome display of natural wonder. I now understand why Michael Bay films feature so many explosions: the golden hour lighting blinds all the vehicle operators leading to astronomical accidents. It’s not just gratuitous use of TNT, but rather an accurate depiction of rush hour traffic coupled with the appropriate road rage of pent-up office workers from across this great nation. I get it now.  

At about 5:30 I am able to reach the junction that leads to the Bay Bridge and there it is: sparkling, shimmering, splendid San Francisco. Through watering eyes, I am able to make out the iconic silhouettes among the skyline and I’m reassured that I’m almost home.  

Well once I get past the 40-minute jam on the bridge I will be, and that’s good enough for me.  

On Fridays the promise of the weekend lingers on the fingertips of other drivers and their anticipation often leads to some close calls on the road. There’s something about the promise of the freedom that the weekend provides that makes some people throw all common sense out the window. “Bye bye, I’ll see you Monday!” 

However, for others like myself the weekend doesn’t always equate to rest and relaxation. For other hustlers constantly on the grind, the weened is then we shed our first uniforms only to put on another. Gotta make that money, honey.  

Or more like experience early burn out and charge forward to our early deaths due to stress.  

Either way, I’m down.  

My side-gig is seemingly a lot less glamorous than my corporate job. Afterall, when you work in retail and customer service, you’re often the punching bag for, shall we say, the less than satisfied customer. It’s something that no one could possibly get paid enough to deal with, and least of all the individuals who do have to put up with it all. And to top it all off, sometimes your manager is a nightmare (I have been lucky in this regard! No nightmares yet, knock on wood).  

Ain’t no rest for the wicked.  

The specific variety of customer service hat I wear is that of a Makeup Advisor at Sephora, the Mecca for all thing’s beauty related. And I love working there!  

No, really, I do! 

It’s a job I always wanted but was too shy to apply for. I would dream about it when I was in High School thinking of all the wonderful makeup that I would be able to play with, all the things I would learn and all the techniques I would get to try.  

It’s been all that and more.  

But there’s something about the glitter that coats the floor, the rainbow pigments that have stained the broom. Something special. 

And something ugly.  

It lingers on the floor, on the shelves and among the many, many swatches that you have littered along the back of your hands and up your arms.  

It follows you back home in your phone, on the paint of your car, in your computer and in your toothpaste for that tingly white shine.  

I’m talking about mica, a naturally occurring mineral whose natural properties include high heat resistance and the ability to be a great electrical conductor. As such, it’s used in everything from electrical circuits in your electronics, paint you used around you home and on your car and virtually all cosmetic products to give them the beautiful shimmer and glow that makes you ask “is she born with it? Or is it mica?” The global sale of this mineral has skyrocketed as the cosmetics industry has grown exponentially, heightening the demand.  

So what’s wrong with that? What’s the matter with me wanting to pile on the highlight so that I outshine even the god’s themselves?  

Well it mostly has to do with the global mica market, exploitation of labor and the high percentage of child labor that occurs within the global supply chain.  

Wait, what? 

Well, okay, let me explain.  

The majority of the world mica is mined in India, and that, my dear is where the issues begin. The Indian government insists that mica mining within the country only takes place on government sanctioned land by well-paid adults. However, in both the Refinery 29 article published in 2019 and a Reuters article published in 2016, it was revealed that not only was mica being mined on protected national park lands, but the mining was overwhelmingly being done by children. In her article and corresponding video, journalist Lexy Lebsac and a small team drive up to one of the hundreds of illegal mines when Lebsac exclaims, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen pretty dirt,” as the glimmering remnants of this mineral surround them.  

As they approach the mine, they begin to see them; tens of children popping in and out of the foxhole-like entrances of these mines, carting baskets of the mineral to the surface to the other children that are readily awaiting them before diving back into the depths of the winding darkness.  

These children work day in and day out mining and sifting through the dirt to extract mica from the earth in unsafe and clearly unregulated conditions. When interviewed, many children speak about previous incidents of mines collapsing in on them, often causing injury and death. Those fates are immediate, but even just handling mica can prove to be detrimental to their health. Mica in its natural form has razor sharp edges that can easily cut into a person’s hands and feet, let alone through a child’s skin. Even more sinister is the mica dust that floats up into the air as these children mine that works its way into their respiratory system causing a linty of problems that could eventually lead to an irreversible scarring of the lungs.  

But how could this be happening? How could all of this be happening all over India’s mica region without anyone noticing or saying anything? 

Well, the problem also lies in the supply chain. Say you are an owner of a large cosmetics company and you are looking for a mica supplier. More than likely you will be looking to India, and since you want to be sure to that your product is vegan and cruelty-free, you look for a supplier who doesn’t exploit children and is certified as such. However, due to the rampant corruption in the industry, the mica supplier with the certificate of authenticity is surprisingly (or perhaps it’s not so surprising at this point) inauthentic. Suppliers can mix legitimately mined mica with mica mined using child labor, or only having used child labor and you would have no way of knowing. It’s these same suppliers who hold the key to the success or failure of the lives of both the child miners and their parents. In the article, “Blood Mica: Deaths of child workers in India’s mica ‘ghost’ mines covered up to keep industry alive” published in 2016 by Reuters, they interviewed an activist who said, “The mark-up is huge […]. Mica is bought from miners at a maximum of 25 rupees (40 cents) a kilogram, yet top quality sheet or ‘ruby’ mica sells for up to $2,000 a kilogram, according to USGS data, helping boost demand for synthetic mica.”   

Similarly, in the Refinery 29 article they interviewer asked one of the mine workers how much they would have to make selling mica in order to make a living wage and be able to send his daughter to school. The answer was “30 – 40 rupees (56 cents) per kilo.” 

Ok, so let’s do a little math here.  

If a single kilogram of mica can be sold by the supplier to the buyer for $2,000 UDS, and they buy the mica from the miners for only 40 cents, then that means that they pocket $1,999.60 UDS. 

Does that even remotely seem fair? Like even a little?  

And seeing as the miner said that it would take 56 cents per kilo to make a livable wage for himself and his family, that would still put the supplier’s net gain at $1,999.44. Hell, at that point you may as well give them a dollar and just call it an even $1,999.  

Ten rupees more and you can send little Pooja to school and keep her family fed. It sounds like some fort of SPCA commercial, cue the Sarah McLachlan song.  

But it’s these high prices for buyers that, just like the Reuter’s article said, that’s driving the industry towards synthetic mica instead. In fact, in the Refinery 29 piece, we see Lebsac attend the Digital Ethics conference and the Mica Panel where Rowena Bird, Lush Cosmetic’s co-founder speaks about her decision to only use synthetic mica in their products since it is virtually impossible to verify the origins of naturally produced mica.  

It sort of sounds like a good idea at first, if you can come up with a viable alternative for natural mica that doesn’t rely on child exploitation and labor to exist, then why wouldn’t you use it? Well, as Aysel Sabahoglu a child right’s expert from Terre des Hommes explains in the panel, “It’s much more complicated than that. Natural mica is a commodity which is in almost any product that you use. You should not try to avoid mica, you should make sure that the families that you buy the mica from, as a company, get decent wages, get living wages.” 

And that, right there is the rub.  

Afterall, when Lebsac asked one of the young mining girls what she would be doing today if she didn’t have to mine her answer was not “Well, I’m glad you asked. I would go to school and learn how to read and then become the prime minister of India and all will be right with the world!” Instead her very sober answer was “[I] would stay hungry.” 

Moving away from natural mica would leave the people of these mining communities without a way to make any livelihood and would likely lead to even less and less profits due to a drop in global demand. Instead, we should become conscious consumers and recognize where our signature glow comes from and push companies like Sephora, Estee Lauder and others to make good on their promise to work with these mines to create a more ethical and sustainable supply chain, instead of spending several millions in lobbying to keep regulations in the EU and US lax (looking at you Estee Lauder) so as to not be held accountable.  

It can be hard when there seems like there’s nothing to be directly done, but as with most things, the first and most important step is becoming aware of the problem. So no, don’t go throwing away everything you own in the name of child activism, but do take note of what’s in your products and you can reach out the brands to ask them the simple question: where do my products come from? 

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