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Inside Beautycounter’s quest to transform its mica supply chain

GreenBiz Group

October 5, 2020

Author: Joel Makower

Inside Beautycounter’s quest to transform its mica supply chain
Joel Makower
Mon, 10/05/2020 - 02:11

First in a two-part series.

This story begins, as so many supply-chain stories do, at a mine, the beginning of a journey in which a commodity — mica, in this case — finds its way into an extraordinarily diverse array of quotidian things: attic insulation; brake linings; car paint; concrete; electronic capacitors; epoxies; fertilizers; gypsum wallboard; LED lights; molded rubber; oil and gas drilling fluids; plastics; printing inks; roofing shingles; and toothpaste.

And somewhere down that list: cosmetics.

The mine in question — actually, thousands of them — can be found in the eastern Indian province of Jharkhand, just over 200 miles west of the cultural hub of Kolkata. Jharkhand — and Bihar, its neighbor to the north — boast one of the world’s richest veins of mica as well as a complex ecosystem of players large and small that provide the shiny, shimmering rock to global markets, including to a maverick California cosmetics company called Beautycounter.

But, as the saying goes, all that glitters is not gold.

Mica mining has become a growing problem for the image- and brand-conscious cosmetics industry. Its relentless pursuit for safe and effective ingredients has animated a wide range of efforts to understand and, when necessary, improve the sourcing practices for mica and thousands of other ingredients. In some cases, that means substituting them with new, less-problematic ones.

Procuring those ingredients can involve complex supply chains, in which families, small businesses and entire communities in far-flung parts of the globe grow, mine or otherwise source raw materials. From there, the materials may wend through a maze of intermediaries: collectors; brokers; distributors; processors; and an assortment of others who ultimately transform them into whatever specifications the market demands. Along the way, materials from one site may be commingled with those from others, complicating companies’ and their customers’ efforts to understand where, exactly, they came from and the conditions under which they were produced.

The complexity of tracking and tracing all these ingredients can obscure detrimental environmental and social impacts, from pollution to bribery to slavery. And child labor, in which small children, often recruited because of their ability to fit into small spaces, do difficult, dangerous work for low pay. In some cases, they are the only thing standing between their families and starvation.

Which brings us back to mica.

In cosmetics, mica is commonly used as a color additive to provide the glitter and shimmer consumers expect in such products as blush, eye shadow, lipstick and foundation. (The mineral’s name comes from Latin word micare, which means to glitter or pulse.) It is also common in skincare products, particularly those marketed as brightening or illuminating, and is used as a bulking agent and to increase viscosity.


Mica flakes, photo courtesy Beautycounter

Mica is mined in more than 35 countries, but about 25 percent of the world’s supply comes from deposits found in and around Jharkhand, in what has been dubbed the mica belt. Jharkhand is also home to the highest level of poverty in India, which has led children to join the labor force in order to enable their families to put food on the table. About 35 percent of the population of Bihar and Jharkhand live on less than 50 cents per day, according to one report.

"The mica in India is optically very distinct," Leonardo Bonanni, founder and CEO of New York-based Sourcemap, a supply-chain mapping software company, explained to me. "People buy it just like they buy cocoa from West Africa: It has that special profile that they're looking for. It's one of the highest quality, if not the highest quality, in the world."


What’s been less chronicled is the arduous journey companies go through to clean up their mica supply chain.


In recent years, the story of mica and child labor has been well-told, thanks to investigative reporters, activist groups and concerned companies. What’s been less chronicled is the arduous journey companies go through to clean up their mica supply chain, including the often-grueling work it takes to trace the mineral from its source all the way to products, then make the necessary changes to ensure it meets a company’s ethical and performance standards. And to communicate all this to its customers and stakeholders in a simple, compelling and reassuring way.

In that regard, mica is just one of many commodities in corporate supply chains that face social and environmental challenges, not to mention byzantine routes to market, leading to increased scrutiny of companies, and especially consumer brands, perceived to be less than responsible or transparent. And while each commodity can have its own unique challenges, the lessons learned in one can inure to the benefit of others in today’s interconnected business world.

School of rock

The past few years have brought a rise in concern over child labor in mica mining in Jharkhand. Investigators have documented children as young as 4 — some working alongside their parents and siblings — hammering rock from walls in illegal mines, then carrying heavy loads through slippery tunnels. Above ground, children sort the mica flakes from the rock and transport them to makeshift collection facilities, some of them in abandoned mines. None of them attend school.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation in 2016 found children "dying in crumbling, illegal mica mines … but their deaths were covered up." A year later, the Indian government legalized mica mining in an effort to allow the sector to be regulated, root out child labor and ensure better wages and conditions for mine workers of all ages. Child labor, however common, remains illegal, and many makeshift mines are unregulated.


Children working in a mine in Jharkhand, India. Photo via Danwatch.

Cosmetic companies, the most visible consumer brands using mica, have been under pressure from advocacy groups to clean up their mica supply chains, in part, by eliminating child labor. A number of both large and smaller brands have taken on the mica issue, some more effectively than others. Those efforts remain a work in progress.

Only about 18 percent of mined mica goes into cosmetics. The electronics industry is the biggest user, with about 26 percent, followed closely by the paints, pigments and ink sector, at 24 percent. But cosmetics, to date, has been the sector most under scrutiny for its mica sourcing practices.

Enter Beautycounter. The 7-year-old privately held company, based in Santa Monica, California, sells 150 or so products directly to consumers through its website, brick-and-mortar stores and more than 50,000 independent consultants. Its founder, marketing executive Gregg Renfrew, built the company around an ethos of "clean" and safe cosmetics by scrutinizing even the most commonly used ingredients.

"We are focused on safety for human health. First and foremost, that's our primary platform," Renfrew told me during an on-stage interview in 2019. The company has banned more than 1,800 ingredients from its formulations due to health and safety concerns.

About three years ago, Beautycounter’s concerns began to expand to include the well-being of those in its supply chains. It set out to try to change the sourcing methods for three ingredients it felt were particularly problematic: palm oil; vanilla; and mica.

Back to the source

To begin, the company needed to understand the provenance of its mica: where it came from and the various parties who touched it, both literally and figuratively, on its way to being incorporated into Beautycounter products. That turned out to be no small feat.

"Traceability is the key to expose secrets and make sure that you can actually understand how people are treated when they're mining or farming the ingredients that you use," Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter’s senior vice president of social mission, explained to me recently. "And while we commend the work that has happened by some of the other traditional beauty players, we actually didn't see anyone that was taking what we felt was an adequate dive to really understand how to trace the mica supply chain."

Dahl and her team began to audit their suppliers and realized "just how little has been done to understand where and how mica is sourced and ultimately ends up in products."


Dahl and her team realized just how little has been done to understand where and how mica is sourced and ultimately ends up in products.


One relatively easy option could have been to use only mica mined in the United States, which boasts high environmental and social standards, at least compared to those in India, Madagascar and other places that mine mica. 

For example, German chemical company BASF operates an open-pit mica mine in Hartwell, Georgia, that it says meets its high standards and has no child labor. The Hartwell mine is the largest source of mica to Beautycounter.

But it isn’t that simple. Some of that has to do with the nature of the mineral itself.

Mica is the name for three dozen or so phyllosilicate materials whose crystalline structure can be split or delaminated into thin sheets or flakes. Different types of mica are used for different applications, depending on whether the need is for a material to be elastic, flexible, hydrophilic, insulating, lightweight, reflective, refractive or opaque, among several other qualities. Identifying the desired attributes for a given product can be tricky.

For example, when used in eyeshadow and blush, the nature and quality of the mica can determine how long it stays on one’s skin. In the case of a tinted moisturizer, one of Beautycounter’s most prominent products, the company tried sourcing domestic mica, "and it just made people's faces look super shiny," Dahl said.

Another workaround would be synthetic mica, made in a lab, which is said to be brighter and more uniform in color and finish. Several cosmetic brands, such as Aether Beauty, Jane Iredale and Lush, boast that their use of manufactured mica eliminates child labor problems. It’s not a guarantee: In 2016, Lush discovered natural mica in a range of mica pigments it had been told were synthetic.

(It can be equally complicated for consumers. Mined mica may be listed on a product ingredient list as mica, muscovite, potassium aluminum silicate or by its chemical name, CI 77019, whereas the lab-made version may show up as synthetic mica or synthetic fluorphlogopite.)

Beautycounter uses domestically mined mica whenever possible. "That's actually how we start our product development process," Dahl explained. "And if that mica doesn't perform, then we go to our other vetted suppliers."

In many of those other cases, mica sourced from Jharkhand is the way to go.

Dialing for details

In 2018, Dahl and her team set out to understand its mica supply chain, including how much verifiable information was available about working conditions and child labor. All of its mica suppliers were able to produce third-party certification attesting to ethical labor practices, but it was unclear what, if anything, was behind those certificates.


Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter's senior vice president of social mission.

"It was clear right away if a supplier even knew where their product was coming from and where it was sourced, because there were so many middlemen," Dahl explained. "And if you don't even know where your product is sourced, how can you actually hand us a certificate that says, ‘We feel confident’?"

That year, Sasha Calder, Beautycounter’s sustainability director, began asking hard questions about child labor in a series of phone audits.

"For some suppliers, there are so many middlepeople that we still don't know," Calder told me. "And for those suppliers, we’re no longer working with them because they didn't have that traceability from the mine all the way to our formulas." In some cases, mica went through "at least 10 different layers and levels of suppliers," she said.

"That very initial step was the real wake-up call that pushed us into action to say, ‘It's time for us to take a deep dive,’" Dahl said.

One goal of the phone-audit exercise, Calder said, was to determine "if our partners or suppliers were willing to have us on the ground to see whether what they were sharing on the phone was legitimate."

In short order, it was time to go.

On the ground

Calder ventured to Jharkhand in January 2019 to see what she could learn about which suppliers were in compliance with Beautycounter’s human rights and safety standards. "We found that the mica industry was much more complicated than anything we thought," she said. "All of our research didn’t prepare us for the complexities on the ground." Her experience there did not inspire confidence.


Beautycounter sustainability director Sasha Calder in Jharkhand.

Calder returned home with recommendations for which suppliers were willing to uphold standards and which weren’t, and where and how the company needed to reformulate ingredients from some suppliers or, with others, put in place a set of initiatives to be compliant with both international law and Beautycounter’s own standards.

For the next several months, Calder and her colleagues worked closely with suppliers to implement those plans. In some cases, suppliers unwilling to make the necessary changes were summarily dropped.

Top-down, bottom-up

Calder returned to Jharkhand in November 2019 to see how things were going. This time, she invited Leo Bonanni from Sourcemap to join her. Bonanni is no stranger to this type of exercise, having investigated coffee and cocoa supply chains from Mexico to Madagascar and throughout West Africa.

"Mica runs into the same problems as cocoa in the sense that a lot of it is informal, a lot of families extracting mica for their own subsistence," Bonanni explained to me. "It's a cash product. You can't eat it, you can't wear it, so it has to be traded. And that means there are a lot of vulnerabilities. The people who mine mica might be getting very low prices compared to what it goes for on the market."

With cocoa, Sourcemap keeps tabs on a half a million smallholder farmers in West Africa, where child labor is common. In Jharkhand, Bonnani observed, "You have an analogous problem — hundreds of thousands of artisanal miners of mica. Child labor and malnutrition are endemic. At the same time, these huge multinational brands and even the traders are fully aware that they're sourcing from these places, but they lack that accountability to the ‘first mile,’ as we call it."


Why don't we apply those lessons from cocoa, which is not an easy supply chain to trace and monitor, to mica?


Bonnani thought: "Why don't we apply those lessons from cocoa, which is not an easy supply chain to trace and monitor, to mica?"

In tracing supply chains to ensure ethical practices, Sourcemap works in both a top-down and bottom-up fashion. The top-down part is something it calls supply-chain discovery — essentially starting with the brand to find out what it knows about its suppliers, and its suppliers’ suppliers, the kind of exercise in which Beautycounter already had engaged. "It's a cascading process that allows a brand, no matter where it is in the world, to find out where their raw materials are sourced," Bonnani explained.

The bottom-up part is on the ground, as Bonnani did in traveling with Beautycounter to Jharkhand, "Going there and trying to figure out what mechanisms can we put on the ground to actually make that supply chain visible, make it transparent," he said.

Bonnani quickly determined that, while mica mining in India shared some qualities with cocoa farming in Madagascar, it lacked some qualities of the cocoa world. 

For example, he told me, "In the cocoa industry, there's been increasing support from all the stakeholders, including even the local governments, to put in place traceability and to account for risks of child labor. In mica, we are still missing many of the key players at the table — basically the people we would need to put pressure on the producers so that they have to become transparent about where they actually source the mineral.

"There's a huge black hole that consists of a whole series of local warehouses and processors. And that's where we lose visibility between the mine and the exporter."

Fanny Frémont agrees. The executive director of the Responsible Mica Initiative, she has been working on behalf of her organization’s 60 member companies, including cosmetics and personal care brands such as Burt’s Bees, Chanel, Clarins, Coty, L’Oréal, LVMH, Sephora, Shiseido and The Body Shop. Its membership also includes automakers, pigment companies, chemical companies, pharmaceuticals and other mica producers and consumers. (Beautycounter is not a member.)

The group has been working since its founding in 2017 to help companies across a range of industries clean up their mica supply chains. The organization and its members have set out to map the flows of mica, starting at the mines. "Each member’s supply-chain participant must then adopt workplace environment, health, safety and fair labor practices that include a prohibition on the use of child labor," according to its website.

The Paris-based organization tracks 57 percent of the mica exports from India, according to Frémont, and has been working with the Jharkhand government to enforce existing regulations and enact new ones. But Frémont told me that the mica initiative doesn’t plan to require traceability by its members.

That’s a blind spot, Bonnani said. "Until we have traceability, we won't be able to account for any of the risks in the mica supply chain, let alone child labor, one of the biggest ones."

Next: How transforming the mica supply chain transforms lives

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This story was originally published by GreenBiz and can be accessed here.

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