Is Our Unicorn Obsession Destroying The Planet?

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Although humans have been infatuated with these mythical creatures since the earliest civilizations, what caused the recent millennial obsession with all things unicorn remains a mystery. Perhaps it's down to kids that were raised on My Little Pony and The Last Unicorn magically reaching adulthood. Perhaps it's Tumblr's pastel-goth subculture entering the mainstream. Maybe it all just boils down to looking for the rainbow at the end of the dark tunnel; an escape from the modern-day political and economic climate.
In Scottish heraldry, the unicorn was lauded for its supposedly proud and haughty nature, and its willingness to choose death over being captured. Nowadays, anybody can grab a piece for themselves, with brands using unicorn symbolism as a major selling point. Influencers incorporate the trend into everything from holographic makeup brushes shaped like spiraled horns to pastel-swirled toast with a gold leaf topping. Typing "unicorn" into Amazon yields over 350,000 results, with a version of just about every object imaginable featuring a stylized one-horned horse. The color-changing Unicorn Frappuccino that was available at Starbucks for a mere five days in April was so popular that it caused a major share increase of 1.8% and sent overworked baristas into meltdown from trying to keep up with demand, as streets filled with long lines. The once rare and gentle beast is now virtually inescapable.
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Aside from finding it mildly infuriating to see everything you love being stamped with a glorified horse's face across every social-media platform available, there are actually real-life disastrous consequences tied to the unicorn phenomenon.
Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with bright colors or equine faces. But the vast majority of unicorn products contain glitter, which is pretty bad news for the environment. The problem is that glitter doesn't biodegrade, as it's usually made from tiny pieces of reflective plastic, or "microplastics." You may be looking cute at the festival with glitter smeared all over your face, but once it's washed away, it will last a whole lot longer swimming around in our oceans, where it can cause major harm to marine life.

Aside from finding it mildly infuriating to see everything you love being stamped with a glorified horse's face across every social-media platform available, there are actually real-life disastrous consequences tied to the unicorn phenomenon.

Earlier this year, the UK banned microbeads from cosmetics, amid warnings that the minuscule plastic particles were being ingested by aquatic life, causing poisoning, infertility, and genetic disruption in species ranging from the tiniest plankton to the most massive and majestic whales. The US currently has a partial ban on microbeads in place. A recent study out of Plymouth University found that more than a third of all fish now contain plastic, with one study estimating that there are more than 5 trillion plastic pieces, weighing over 250,000 tons, scattered across the world's oceans. What's more, it was reported in September that plastic fibers have been found in 83% of tap-water samples worldwide, leading to calls for scientists to figure out how this directly impacts human health.
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OK, so no glitter then. But what about other shiny things? Sadly, the main natural alternative to glitter isn't always that golden, either. Mica is a non-toxic mineral that's organically found deep underground and is used in makeup, nail varnish, body, and hair glitter for its pearlescent properties. However, it must be laboriously mined from deforested land, and brought to the surface in order to be used.
The process can be extremely difficult. In India, one of the world's largest sources of mica, workers can find themselves clambering across unstable ground that's prone to collapse. Last year, activists believed there were around 10 deaths a month in India's mines on average; one month in particular, they say it was as many as 20.
Last year, the problem hit mainstream media with the rising number of premature deaths of children as young as five working illegally in Indian mica mines. It's estimated that around 20,000 children were found laboring on these dangerous sites, of which a shocking 90% were deemed illegal. And more than 90% of the mica mined in northeast India is thought to have been obtained illegally, making it near-impossible to gauge whether or not your latest shiny new purchase has resulted in a tragic death.
And yet, even with the threat of tragedy looming over them, entire families' livelihoods rest on these precarious mines. Last year, journalists from the Thomson Reuters Foundation traveled across the major mica-producing states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Andhra Pradesh, only to find many children using their small hands to pick mica from the floor. Others still were seen descending rickety ladders down dark shafts to forage for higher quality silicate.
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Either unicorn culture needs a major rebrand, or it's time for us to step back into reality and say no to the glitter litter — all 268,940 tons of it.

Lush Cosmetics is one of the only major brands speaking out against both the environmental impact of glitter and the unethical conditions related to mica mining. In the company's All That Glitters manifesto, they explain that, due to the negative impacts of plastic glitter and mined mica, their sparkly products only contain synthetic mica, which is manufactured in laboratories but still comprises natural minerals. In this refreshingly honest report, Lush reveals that they had dropped their prior supplier as they were not "confident that [their] previous supplier's audits could guarantee that child labor wasn't a possibility." They go on to mention that all mica, whether mined from the ground or created by a dude with a PhD and lab goggles, always requires some form of chemical processing to make it fit for human use.
Although it makes your makeup bag feel a little less gruesome, switching to lab-grown mica doesn't solve India's child mining crisis. Fortunately, the good people at Responsible Mica Initiative are working hard — in tandem with some of the world's biggest beauty brands — to ensure fair and sustainable practice to build a legal and livable work environment.
So, about those unicorns: suddenly not such an alluring trend. Obsessively caring about a fictional creature at the expense of real-life people, animals, and our planet is madness. Either unicorn culture needs a major rebrand, or it's time for us to step back into reality and say no to the glitter litter — all 268,940 tons of it.
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