2020 has put sustainability on the path from buzzword to absolute necessity (better late than never, it seems). As mounting pressure is rightfully placed on the beauty industry, we’ve ditched microbeads, swapped cotton pads for Makeup Erasers, and put the humble shampoo bar back on our radar. But is there another yet another eco-faux pas that’s going over — or perhaps on — our heads?
With the global wig and hair-extension market estimated to be worth over $10 billion by 2023, it’s no surprise that the demand for synthetic hair has risen exponentially in recent years. The considerably lower price point and versatility, coupled with ethical issues surrounding human hair harvesting, have made it an obvious choice for many. Environmentally, however, synthetic hair plays a rather sinister role: It's essentially composed of ultra-fine strands of plastic, and the petrochemical-derived materials such as polyester, acrylic, and PVC are not biodegradable. This means that they ultimately end up in landfills and contribute further to our global waste problem.
To an outsider, the solution might seem simple: Who needs wigs, anyway? But for some of the people who wear them, wigs are everything — for cancer patients, for people living with alopecia, and for many women in the natural hair community who choose to wear protective styles. "Taking care of your natural hair is the most sustainable option, but protective styling is paramount, particularly in cold weather," braiding specialist Afi Emily Attipoe explains. "Some hairstyles work better with synthetic hair due to its texture, variety, and ability to mimic Afro hair."
For some, it's a matter of personal style; the noncommittal nature and ease of a wig allows wearers to experiment with their hair. Amber Rose Theron, a self-described synthetic-wig "hoarder," enjoys being able to create a whole new look. Having dabbled with fake hair since her early teens, she says, "My natural hair can be inconsistent. Wearing wigs allows me to have more control." In an effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle, Amber regularly brings her wigs back to life using DIY techniques she's seen on YouTube — but she says that she's unaware of how to properly dispose of synthetic hair.
This is echoed by many synthetic wig wearers — whether they're shopping to cover up hair loss due to a medical condition or, like Theron, just to switch it up. Despite the lifespan of synthetic hair being far shorter than that of human hair, best disposal practice is widely unknown; often there are no instructions on the packaging at all. "Regulations are needed on all hair products, synthetic or real," Beth Summers, co-director of Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), says. "A fair-trade and transparent supply chain with proper health and safety legislation for the manufacture, use, and disposal of synthetic hair is required."
Driving down the price of sustainable options might not be possible or desirable, potentially leading to the unethical exploitation of vulnerable women.
Beth Summers, co-director, Women's Environmental Network
London-based hair-extensions expert Vicky Demetriou agrees with the need for clarity on the issue, and highlights that thorough research is vital — because, as she points out, synthetic options may be presented as being more sustainable as human hair. Demetriou, who works mainly with human hair, says that her clientele is becoming more environmentally aware. "My main tip is to buy what you really want to wear and keep it," she says. "Going 'real' is a fantastic investment because hair is your biggest accessory and the planet is your home, but there is a massive demand for synthetic options. Provided you buy something you love and can rewear, it is a great conscious purchase."
Pricing is far too often the biggest barrier to sustainability, forcing people to make unsustainable choices. Theron, for example, can’t spend more than $50 on a wig — she would love an ethically-sourced natural human hair wig, but it’s out of her budget. "The relatively high price of sustainable options is often because the plastic version has an unrealistically low price that doesn't take into account the true costs such as the chemical, pollution, waste, and health impacts created through manufacturing, use, or at disposal," Summers says. Conscious consumers are therefore stuck with a choice between economically cheap yet environmentally costly synthetic hair, and less affordable natural hair that bears its own environmental weight. Additionally, Summer says, "Driving down the price of sustainable options might not be possible or desirable, potentially leading to the unethical exploitation of vulnerable women."
A leading synthetic-hair innovation will soon be more widely available: Raw Society Hair has created the world’s first 100% compostable braiding hair extension using banana fiber extracted from the stem of banana trees. As the stem purely connects the fruit and the tree, it is a natural byproduct of farming; using it in this way gives it purpose, saves land use, and provides farmers with additional income. The brand is owned by Welsh sisters Cherry and Crystal Hinam, who emigrated to Australia in 2017 and have career backgrounds in human hair extensions and graphic design respectively. "We receive the raw product from Uganda. It arrives yellow in color, curly, and frizzy," Cherry explains. "We then color and style it until it is ready to be used. Not only can the hair be reused, but it can also be curled and straightened." With plans to sell direct-to-consumer as well as to businesses, the sisters are also about to launch a "zero" range, where color is applied without water or heat and is 100% natural.
Wig banks are also cropping up more and more, providing another way to reuse synthetic wigs. Catering for those with hair loss who are also financially limited, community-driven companies — such as Simply Wigs in the UK — take donations of used wigs, which they then wash and recondition before reselling.
As the war on plastic intensifies, a sustainable synthetic hair solution is still quite challenging to find. While we wait for innovation to arrive, the only thing we can really control is our individual efforts. The best way to shop sustainably is, of course, not to shop at all, but this is often idealistic. So whether it’s switching to human hair or reusing synthetic hairpieces, small changes — like learning to take better care of synthetic hair, or being mindful of when, where, and how we dispose of our wigs — are the best place to start.