The economics of the $7B+ human hair industry


December 20, 2020

Beauty trends have fueled growth in the global human hair industry. Now, concerns about ethics and quality are generating new business models.
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The economics of the human hair trade

Beauty trends have fueled growth in the global human hair industry. Now, concerns about ethics and quality are generating new business models.

BY Caitlin Macleod

Human hair is one of the most versatile resources in the world.

It’s used to make calligraphy brushes, suit linings, and furniture. It’s enlisted to clean up oil spills. It’s even a part of the bagel-making process at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Most severed locks, though, end up on other people’s heads.

By one estimate, the global wig, weave, and hair extension market is worth ~$7B — and it’s projected to grow to $10B+ by 2024 (an 8% CAGR).

In the United States, these products have long been popular among sufferers of hair loss, African American and Orthodox Jewish communities, and entertainment professionals.

But in recent years, celebrities and social media influencers have attracted a new subset of human hair consumers.

Khloe Kardashian has a whole closet in her house dedicated to extensions; her sister Kim caused a Twitter storm when she posted a picture with a hair extension on the floor in the background. It seems every classic coiffure — from “The Rachel” to Ariana Grande’s signature ponytail — started life elsewhere. 

But where does all this hair come from? And where is it going?

The human hair supply chain

The journey that a strand of human hair takes from a grower’s head to a consumer’s head is complex and often opaque.

According to industry experts who spoke with The Hustle, hair passes through ~100 pairs of hands before it reaches its final destination.

This process begins with harvesting, or collecting hair from the original source’s head. The vast majority of the world’s unprocessed hair comes from just 2 places: Hong Kong ($30.2m/year in exports) and India ($19m). 

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According to Emma Tarlo’s book, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair, local hair traders in China and India circulate from village to village searching for women who want to sell or barter their hair.  

One major source is Hindu temples in Southern India, where pilgrims sacrifice their hair in a practice called tonsuring.

Venkateswara Temple, in the hill town of Tirumala, employs 1,320 barbers who shave an average of 40 heads per day. This tonsured hair is sold through e-auctions. In February 2019, one such auction brought in $1.6m from 157 tons of hair.

It takes at least 2 years for a woman to grow her hair to the minimum saleable length (generally 10 inches) — and as communities develop, women become less willing to part with it.

This has forced harvesters in India and China to expand their search areas to less developed countries like Myanmar, Laos, Mongolia, and Indonesia. 

The price of unprocessed hair is largely variable and depends on its length, texture, and condition.

Hair cut directly from a woman’s head (called Remy) fetches the highest price and is commonly referred to as “black gold” by traders. 

In 2018, hairdressers in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, were offering between $11 and $150 for a head of hair — anywhere from 4x to 55x the country’s minimum wage of $2.70. 

But the industry also relies on less desirable waste hair, which “hair pickers” gather from drains and waste mounds and sell to local dealers for ~$17 per pound.

Workers washing and sorting hair at a processing center on the outskirts of Chennai, India in 2017 (ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Once harvested, these clumps of hair are processed into organized manes.

Waste hair travels to Myanmar and Bangladesh, where workers untangle it and sort it into bundles of matching length and color. In Pyawbwe, a small village 300 miles north of Yangon, the community once relied on farming; now, almost every family is untangling hair.

A typical Myanmarese worker might earn $1.40 for a day’s work.

This processed hair is then shipped to factories where it’s manufactured into shiny clip-in bangs, bouncy bobs, and lifelike toupees. 

More than 70% of these factories are in China — and the country reaps the lion’s share of the profits from market-ready hair products.

According to UN Comtrade data, China exported $1.15B worth of manufactured human hair products in 2019.

In Xuchang — a city often called the wig-making capital of the world — hair is dyed, treated, hand-knotted, and machine-wefted into custom wigs that are handmade on molds of the recipients’ heads. 

Workers processing hair near Chennai, India in 2017 (ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Finished products travel from factory line to salon shelf along a global distribution chain.

Products move through multinational distributors and local middlemen, sometimes crossing the Atlantic Ocean more than once before ending up for sale on online marketplaces like Amazon, Alibaba, and Etsy.  

With $130m+ in 2020 imports, the United States is the largest market for these human hair products. Consumers fall into several subsets:

  • The African American market, which is well-established and accounts for a significant portion of US hair consumption. This sector is dominated by Korean American retailers.
  • The market for sheitels (wigs worn by Orthodox Jewish wives for religious reasons) is estimated to be worth $60m. These high-end wigs ($800 to $5.5k) tend to come from specialist suppliers.
  • And, the newest addition: millennial Instagram users who shop at retail chains like The Hair Shop.

But in recent times, a number of ethical concerns have prompted suppliers and buyers to rethink the existing supply chain. 

Tricky ethics and quality control

In July 2020, a 13-ton shipment of human hair products worth over $800k was seized by US customs. It is thought that the products were harvested from (and made by) prisoners in Uighur detention camps in Xinjiang.

Though the general supply chain of hair can be mapped out, most consumers don’t know where their hair comes from, or whether the people it comes from are fairly compensated.

A worker produces a wig at a factor in Hezhang, China in October 2020 (Luo Dafu/VCG via Getty Images)

Valerie Ogoke is the founder of Ayune Hair, an extensions company dedicated to ethical sourcing.

“We forget the impact it has on the women in these countries,” she tells The Hustle. “The way that they perceive beauty is the same way that Western women do, so a lot of times there’s shame and embarrassment when they cut their hair.” 

Many consider temples an ethical source of hair, but Ogoke has concerns. “If someone is donating their hair for spiritual reasons, I don’t want to make a profit off that experience,” she says.

Instead, she sources fallen hair — the 50-100 hairs we naturally shed every day — from rural Indonesian women, allowing them to supplement their incomes while preserving their appearances. 

Ogoke’s sentiments point to a larger trend toward ethically sourced hair products.

While it’s not yet clear if ethical harvesting can satisfy demand, a number of brands — Great Lengths, Remy New York, Woven Hair, SimplyHair, and The Real Human Hair Company — have made ethics a central part of their marketing.

This year, Google searches for “ethical hair” reached a 5-year high. And at large, print interest in ethically sourced products has surged in the last 2 decades.

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

Quality issues run in tandem with ethical concerns: Many hair products also don’t always match what they say on the label. 

Unscrupulous suppliers are known to:

  • Supplement “100% human” products with cheaper synthetic and animal hair to boost margins.
  • Misrepresent the origin country of hair.

UN Comtrade export figures suggest that hair marketed as Brazilian or Peruvian is often Chinese or Indian. A wig labeled “Remy European” may well be bleached Indian comb waste mixed with goat hair. 

South African entrepreneur Pretty Kubyane co-founded Blockchain Coronet, a unique supply chain management solution for salons.

According to Kubyane, African salons make 80% of their income from human hair products — but 38% of the 100m units sold to African women annually are reported to be counterfeit. 

Many salons rely on fly-by-night middlemen who offer no recourse for poor-quality deliveries. Others make costly trips to China to purchase hair in person and bring it back in their luggage, making them vulnerable to theft.

Kubyane’s solution uses blockchain technology to track products and guarantee their origin. A certificate of authentication reassures consumers that their hair matches the label and allows salons access to insurance.

C2C platforms like buyandsellhair.com offer more transparency for consumers and more control for sellers.

Women share pictures of their hair and details about their diet, hair care regime, and reasons for selling. Sellers set their own prices (often between $800 and $1.2k) and often only cut their hair once it’s paid for.

An ad for hair on an online marketplace (buyandsellhair.com)

A number of other companies attempt to address these issues through alternative means:

  • Promptly Polished plans to sidestep manufacturers with an Etsy-style model that connects consumers with independent wig designers worldwide.
  • Raw Society Hair has developed hair extensions made from banana tree stems. Their mission is to offer a biodegradable alternative to synthetic extensions and create jobs for small-scale Ugandan banana farmers. 
  • ShayTell is sort of like Yelp for Orthodox wigs.

COVID and the future of the human hair trade

History suggests the hair industry thrives during economic downturns.

During the Great Depression, hair was one of the few things women continued to spend money on. And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, salon numbers grew by 8% as other industries floundered.

This might explain why, despite shuttered salons, sales of health and beauty products rose by 13% earlier this year, compared to the same period in 2019. 

According to IBISWorld, customers increasingly view salon expenses as essential rather than discretionary. A survey of 10k European men found that many would rather have a small penis than go bald.

Kubyane challks this up to the lipstick effect: Consumers tend to spend more on small indulgences during tough financial times.

“When things are not well, [women] just want to look beautiful,” she says.

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