Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Photo Essay 1. Human Hair in London
Recycled as expensive hair extensions and wigs for the West or sold for use as raw material for the chemical industry, human hair trade has grown into an extremely profitable business, with more than 95% of all human hair imports coming from India and China.
The human hair business first boomed across India in the Sixties, but sales dropped when synthetic alternatives were introduced. Since then complaints of skin allergies, especially by European consumers, once again boosted the demand for natural hair. The human hair trade has become a large market entirely export-oriented, that thrives on painstaking methods of collecting hair from villages and slums where hair is least likely to be dyed or treated with chemicals. Factory workers as young as 12 years old spend their days sorting, combing and cleaning the hair collected from villagers, barber shops and temples. Women are being increasingly targeted and exploited by unscrupulous agents because there are not specific restrictions on the import and export of human hair. This is obviously an environment that breeds illegality.
The Hindu temples of Tirupati in the southern province of Andhra Pradesh are the centre of the global trade in human hair and the wealthiest in all of India. Each year thousands of worshipers make pilgrimages to visit the statue of Vishnu, where their hair is cut off as an act of religious sacrifice and devotion. Babies are shaved for good luck and adults allow themselves to be shaved to thank the gods. The temples are permitted to spend not more than one third of their revenues from hair sales on expansion and renovation. The rest goes to charities, schools, orphanages and hospitals. Within a few days, tonnes of donated hair make its way from the warehouses in the temple to lucrative auctions and processing factories around the port of Chennai, eventually arriving in Europe and America where it will adorn the heads of Western women. Indian hair is renowned for its quality and is bought raw for between $2 and $5 per kilo. Once processed, it is sold to extensions and wig makers for around $40 per kilo. Lower quality hair is interwoven with other fabrics to make jackets linings, mattresses and cosmetic brushes, or it is converted into amino acids, which in turn are used in food and medicine.
The demand in the UK and US for hair extensions and cosmetic products with hair extracts means that turning faith into fashion has become a new big industry over the past ten years, earning major temples and exporters revenues of more than $3oo million annually. Celebrities are the best advertisement for companies like Great Lenghts, an international conglomerate with 45 distribution offices in 53 countries that controls around 60% of the world market for human hair extensions and processes 5 tons of hair each month. Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Victoria Beckham, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow have all had long hair extensions glued to their own, and thousands of regular women in the developed world have followed the trend, paying up to $2000 for a full head session to extend volume or length. Women have an average of 100 to 200 grams of hair on their head and the extensions last for six months. By then a person’s own hair will have grown so that the extensions no longer sit properly in place, so the foreign hair is removed and discarded.
The human hair business is growing at the phenomenal rate of 40% annually, creating a network of dealers on all continents and air shipments around the globe. The sole purpose of all this effort is to transfer hair from one head to another, because having one’s own hair is just not enough. Hair has to be shiny, smooth, long and perfect.