Although we've been infatuated with these mythical creatures since the earliest civilisations, what caused the current 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 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 anything from glamorous makeup brushes in the shape of spiral horns to pastel-hued toast with a gold leaf topping. Typing 'unicorn' into Amazon accumulates nearly 300,000 results, with just about every object imaginable featuring a stylised one-horned horse. The colour-changing Unicorn Frappuccino that was available in US-based 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 queues. The once rare and gentle beast is now virtually inescapable.
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 colours or equine faces, but the majority of unicorn products often contain glitter, which is pretty bad news for the environment (let alone for the poor vaginas that have had capsules of Passion Dust shoved up them).
The main problem with glitter is that it 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 about in our oceans, having detrimental effects on marine life.
Earlier this year, the UK banned microbeads from cosmetics after 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. Today, more than a third of all fish now contain plastic, with one study suggesting that every square kilometre of the world's oceans has an average of over 60,000 microplastic particles bobbing about on the surface. Even further to this, it was reported this month that plastic fibres have been found in 83% of tap water samples across the world, leading to calls from scientists to urgently figure out how exactly this directly effects human health.
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 largest producers of mica in the world, 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. One month, 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 labouring 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 travelled 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 were seen descending rickety ladders down dark shafts to forage for higher quality silicate.
Lush Cosmetics is one of the only larger brands speaking out against both the environmental impact of glitter and the unethical conditions related to mica mining. In their "All That Glitters" manifesto, they explain that due to negative impacts of the aforementioned 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 admits that they dropped their prior supplier as they were not "confident that [their] previous supplier's audits could guarantee that child labour 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 that 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 to ensure fair and sustainable practice to build a legal and liveable work environment.
So, 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.