This story is from Stuff
Palm oil, cocoa, vanilla, mica and copper powders are all commonly used in cosmetics. As ingredients, they’re innocent enough. Trouble is, they’re often sourced from countries where extreme poverty exists, and where harvesting or mining is often done by children, some as young as five.
New Zealand imported nearly $370M in cosmetics in 2022, as well as many cosmetic ingredients from countries where child labour is a recognised issue.
With an estimated 30% of ingredients in cosmetics derived from mined or agricultural commodities, it’s guaranteed many contain these problematic ingredients, says Rebekah Armstrong World Vision’s Head of Advocacy and Justice. “It’s also highly probable that some of these ingredients were harvested and mined using child labour,” she says.
A new report, The High Price of Beauty, pinpoints the challenge: murky supply lines makes it impossible for consumers to make ethical choices. Currently, there’s no requirement for New Zealand companies to check their supply chains for modern slavery, including child labour.
The importing and re-importing of mica between countries shows how complicated supply lines can become, and why greater transparency is required.
Mica is a mineral used in cosmetics to add a sparkle or shimmer. It’s added to personal care products and beauty products such as nail polish, highlighter, blush, lipstick and body glitter.
In 2022, New Zealand imported 98.4% of its mica from China. But in the same year, China imported 59% of its mica from India and 19% from Madagascar – both countries known for extreme poverty and high instances of child labour in the mica industry.
Natural cosmetics may avoid synthetics and animal testing, but plant-based ingredients can also have a higher risk of child labour and environmental damage when sourced from certain areas of the world.
Palm oil is incredibly pervasive in cosmetics and is used widely in many food items as well.
In 2022, New Zealand imported 67.8% of its palm oil from Indonesia and 32.1% from Malaysia, the report found.
As well as contributing hugely to deforestation and wildlife destruction, the palm oil industries in these countries are known for high instances of child labour.
Cocoa is commonly used in moisturising creams, lotions, soaps, bath bombs, sugar scrubs, face masks, blush, and bronzer. The largest exporters of cocoa are Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire, where an estimated 2.1 million children work, 16,000 of whom have been forced or trafficked. During the COVID-19 lockdowns there was a 21% increase in child labour in these countries, reports World Vision.
In 2022, New Zealand imported 27% of its cocoa from child labour trouble spot, Ghana, followed by 17.6% from re-exporters Australia, Singapore and Malaysia.
Vanilla can be found in body lotions, lip balms, body butters, foundations, and creams. In 2022, New Zealand imported 41.8% of its vanilla from Uganda, 14% from Papua New Guinea and 12.3% from Madagascar – all countries know for using child labour in this industry.
Earlier this month, the government announced it will introduce reporting laws around modern slavery.
”The proposed disclosure law will require companies to identify products and geographies at risk of modern slavery, but at this stage doesn’t require them to actually take any action to mitigate or address modern slavery,” says Armstrong.
Here’s what you can do:
• Use your power as a consumer. Fair trade-certified beauty products are a great place to start. The fair treatment of adult workers, and when farmers and miners are paid a fair price, families are better able to care for their children.
• The provenance of ingredients matters. Countries including Indonesia, India, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Madagascar can all be problematic. Look for companies actively working with and supporting the communities where their products are sourced.
• Research your favourite brands, suggests Armstrong. Visit their website and see what they say about where and how ingredients are sourced.
“If they are not addressing the matter on their website, then it’s likely they are not addressing the matter at all in the real world,” she says. “If there’s no information on a company’s website contact the brand and ask them where they source these five ingredients from, and what work they’ve done to ensure they aren’t harvested using child labour or forced labour.”
• Tell your friends and family about the risks of child labour in cosmetics, and share the information on social media.
• Engage with and support organisations and companies that are addressing the systemic root causes of poverty in the areas where palm oil, cocoa, mica, vanilla, and copper are produced.
• Sign petitions that advocate for greater transparency and accountability.