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Opinion Do you really know what’s behind your makeup or face cream?

Katherine Shaw of World Vision has conducted research into the darker side of the beauty industry

MOST OF US will have used a cosmetic brand throughout our lives and many of us will have makeup and cosmetics in our bags, drawers and at our desks. The highly profitable sales of these cosmetics – a 95 billion dollar global industry – are driven by a huge body of advertising whether through traditional ads or more recently via the inescapable feeds of influencers on social media.

Cosmetics can have a positive impact on our lives – fresh makeup, a good moisturiser or a nice body lotion can improve how we feel in our day. But, if you’re using these products, have you ever asked yourself what else is behind them and who may have been exploited in their creation? Well, the reality behind some of these products is not so shiny. 

When I started working on World Vision’s new report, The Hidden Cost of Beauty at the end of 2018, I didn’t know much about beauty and cosmetics ingredients. My main concern about what was in makeup was the fact that for my sensitive skin, pretty much anything was a high risk of causing a new spot or red rash. As we drafted the first iteration of the report in 2019 though, my concept of high risk pretty quickly changed. 

The findings of our research are stark and we found that most glossy beauty products are likely to contain ingredients gathered by children in mines and on farms in low-income countries. ‘Cruelty free’ products may not involve animal testing, but they are likely to include ingredients procured from child labour, and despite decades of progress, the numbers of child labourers who work to support their family or have been trafficked, forced or coerced to work has been increasing since 2016.

We estimate that around 30 percent of ingredients in cosmetics are derived from either mined or agricultural commodities and the growth of the natural beauty industry in particular, has seen an increased demand for agricultural inputs. In illegal mines in India and Congo, children are dying in collapsed mine shafts while digging for minerals for cosmetic products. 


While working on this research I was horrified to hear from cosmetic companies about just how hard it was to trace their products all the way to the source and heartbroken when an academic told me that none of the existing schemes in the industry really help address the root causes of child labour.

We also found that the risk of children of poor families being pushed into labour happens when the work is poorly paid or where education and other opportunities are hard to come by. We often think of child labour as that in a factory or forced sexual exploitation – both of which are incomparably horrific for a child to have to experience. However, when we talk about child labour in cosmetics supply chains, it’s pretty representative of the bulk of child labour in the world today. Over 70% of child labour globally is in agriculture, much more unassuming and ubiquitous, and often on family farms.

That’s kids carrying heavy loads or wielding machetes and pesticides that can harm them. It’s kids missing school to harvest or pollinate crops.

While we were working on this report, the world changed. We’d gone into and out of the global pandemic and associated lockdowns. Child labour, already on a growth trajectory before Covid, accelerated further on the back of the closure of schools and economic crises of the past few years.

And while we in wealthier countries sat at home and worked from our kitchen tables for two years, we used makeup in new ways and took a whole new interest in skincare. Already a growth area before the pandemic, the increasing sales of skincare and demand for natural ingredients now means at least that consumers have real power to take a stand and push companies to do better.

Change coming slow

A wave of transparency laws have been enacted over the past decade to address child labour such as the California Transparency Act, the UK’s Modern Slavery Act and recent legislation in Canada and Germany. These new laws have meant there’s been a vast improvement in the paperwork and processes published on the websites of many of the largest cosmetic and beauty companies.

However, many are still vague, audit practices are unfortunately easy to circumvent and we need to go further, all the way down to the communities where we work.

The research we carried out was placed on hold by the pandemic and that has been helpful in a way as it has given us the opportunity to visit some of the same communities twice and see the changes over a four-year period.

In 2019, a major international shea buyer in northern Ghana waved stacks of papers showing that every cooperative they had purchased from had pledged not to use child labour. But when I met a vanilla farmer in Uganda this April, he told me that since I’d seen him in 2019 the vanilla price had crashed and thieves had stolen half of one harvest. When I asked a vanilla buyer in a neighbouring community about child labour, he laughed and said that was an issue for exporters in Kampala and not something he’d ever discussed.


World Vision is working in some of the most vulnerable communities that grow vanilla, cocoa and shea for our cosmetics, or are working to mine copper. We’ve seen improvements as together school systems are strengthened, children and parents learn more about their rights, and communities and our staff lobby the governments effectively to fund the child protection systems that are meant to help fight child labour.

Incredibly dedicated agriculture and livelihoods colleagues travel to remote communities and work with them to make their agricultural practices as profitable as possible.

Without changes from the companies who are procuring these products though, we can only do so much. The lasting change for these communities will come when they are given greater bargaining power and paid a fair price for their products. Right now middlemen often double the cost and muddy the transparency of supply chains, leaving families impoverished and companies accepting unknown provenance.

And that’s where we all come in – next time you go to the shop to buy a foundation or a cream, ask the people on the shop floor if they know what their company is doing to make sure they don’t have child labour in their supply chains. Message your favourite beauty companies on Instagram and TikTok, etc and ask for transparency, write to your politicians and ask them if they’re doing enough. 

Change isn’t going to be instantaneous, but it’s possible. It can be done in the same way that consumer power pushed many companies to become more natural in their formulations or free from animal testing. We need to apply the same pressure now so that cruelty free really means cruelty free.

Katherine Shaw is the author of the report and is a communications advisor with World Vision. The report can be viewed here


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