Mica – the most important mineral you've never heard of – can be found in everything from nail varnish to eyeshadow. It’s the stuff that gives your car's paint job a glimmering finish and there’s a strong chance it's found in the electronic device you're reading this story on.
But behind the glamour and flashy electronics, there's an ugly secret: the murky supply chain of mica is riddled with child labor, exploitation, and death.
Mica is a naturally occurring mineral that produces a glittery effect through its crystalline structure. Sometimes labeled as “potassium aluminum silicate” or “CI 77019” on products, the mineral’s pearlescent properties are used to add a sparkle to cosmetics, paints, inks, and all manner of other products. It was even used in traditional woodblock printing in Japan to give it a little bit of a twinkle. Along with its role in cosmetics and pigments, mica’s thermal and electrical insulating properties also make it a valuable material for electronic gadgetry.
Understandably, this versatile glitter is hot property and demand has never been higher. However, extracting mica from the earth is arduous work and processing the raw material requires extensive manual labor. On top of that, many of the planet’s biggest natural deposits also just so happen to lie in some of the world’s poorest areas, altogether creating the perfect recipe for a corrupted situation.
India is one of the largest producers of mica, especially in the impoverished eastern states of Jharkhand and Bihar, where an estimated 25 percent of the world’s supply is churned out by over 20,000 children, according to figures from a 2016 report by Dutch non-profit SOMO, called “Beauty and a Beast”.
Most mica mines are illegal in this part of the world, namely due to environmental laws, but the government often turns a blind eye. The illicit nature of the trade also leave the mines in the hands of the “mica mafia", a chain of organized crime, gangs, corrupt businessmen, and other shady characters who aren’t put off by the industry’s grim corners.
An investigation by Reuters in 2017 of a village in the Giridih district of Jharkhand state chronicled the stories of local people working in the mica mining industry. They discovered that at least seven children had died in two months in the crumbling mines. However, the real figure is likely higher. Due to the illegal nature of the work, bodies are often not recovered from the rubble or are cremated by mine operators.
Another recent investigation by Refinery29, published in May 2019, found that children as young as 5 years old are still working in mica mines around Jharkhand.
"There’s no other form of [work]. When you’re hungry, there’s no other way," Kishar Kumari, a local who lost his daughter in a mine collapse, told Refinery29.
Even beyond the initial concerns of precarious makeshift mines and child labor, mica is nasty stuff to be around for too long. The US CDC states that exposure to mica can cause eye irritation, a cough, breathing difficulty, exhaustion, and weight loss. As such, they recommend any workers who are around it to wear specialized respiratory gear.
The murky supply chain of mica might start in impoverished communities with child labor, but after being passed through chains of brokers and international manufacturers, it ends up in makeup bags and smartphones of people across the world.
Following the huge stream of investigations in recent years, the situation is improving, although it’s still unclear how much mica is tangled up with child labor today. One of the biggest wholesale suppliers, German chemical giant Merck, acknowledged the use of child labor in their mica mines and started to act on the situation in 2009. It since states that it no longer uses any mica that is sourced in “an informal work environment”, and many cosmetic companies have vowed to remedy problems in their own supply chains.
A number of multinational companies have also signed the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI), including Estee Lauder, L’Oréal, The Body Shop, H&M, Chanel, and many others. Their goal is to clean up the mica industry and install a responsible supply chain that doesn’t rely on child labor. For example, L’Oréal, one of the biggest companies, now states that over 98 percent of their mica comes from “secured sources”, the majority of which is sourced from the US.
However, the road to change is lined with hurdles. As explained by the cosmetics company LUSH in a lengthy blog post, cutting out child labor from the supply chain is not straightforward. LUSH, a company with a strong track record for ethical considerations, formerly bought mica from suppliers who had guaranteed children were not working on site. After doubts were raised about the auditing process, they decided they could no longer guarantee transparency in the supply chain, so they switched to synthetic mica (synthetic fluorphlogopite). But then, in 2016, the company discovered that natural mica actually sneaked into a range of mica pigments they were told were synthetic.
These barriers to change are a problem felt by many other companies who have promised to source ethical mica. On the other hand, some campaigners argue that they have been slow to act.
“Could the companies have done more? The answer is yes," Sushant Verma, from Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF), a charity working to end child labor in mica mines, told Reuters in 2017. "They had a year and yet there is little to show on the ground. Children are dying in these mines, but there is no sense of urgency to really tackle the problem,”
So, what can you do as a consumer? Well, not much. Despite progress, there's still no reliable way for consumers to ensure they do not use mica mined by children or people in poor working conditions. As mentioned, the ingredients list on cosmetics and such often don't state "mica" and instead opt for a more obscure chemical name. There is also no "fair trade badge" for products that are free of unethically sourced mica.