An award winning media company committed to sharing the perspectives of people of colour from marginalised genders

Is a low-waste lifestyle compatible with my braids and wigs?

From the human and environmental costs of real and synthetic hair, Gugulethu Khumalo wants to know if it's possible to be ethical when it comes to Black hair.

13 Feb 2021

photography by Autumn Goodman via Canva

When I first decided to transition into a more thoughtful low-waste way of living, my friends and family made jokes about how I would have to forfeit my fashionable style and replace it with ill-fitting clothes made from kooky organic fabric. That would be the price I had to pay for my newfound love for the planet.

But, rather than this proving to be an issue (if anything I’ve developed a better sense of style), it was the question of what to do with my hair that arose. Unfortunately, none of the aesthetically pleasing blogs, mostly run by white women, prepared me for the ethical conundrum that would be caused by my afro.

Thanks to my new lifestyle, my dustbin was virtually empty for weeks on end, until I had to take my braids out. And just like that, in several hours my hair filled the dustbin up, destined for the landfill. While my hair products, like the Zero Bar range and Lush’s new afro haircare range, were all renewable and ethically sourced, protective styles like box braids and cornrows using synthetic braiding hair still played a huge role in my life.

I always thought that the magic of being a Black woman is our ability to morph and shift into any look at the drop of a hat. This is what enables us to go from a 10-inch pink bob to a luxurious bone straight Peruvian in a matter of minutes. However, I began to realise that sometimes our attempts to make our hair ‘acceptable’ lead to hyper-consumerism – Black British women spend six times more on hair compared to white women. 

“None of the aesthetically pleasing blogs, mostly run by white women, prepared me for the ethical conundrum that would be caused by my afro”

After watching a Refinery29 documentary, The Truth About Where Hair Extensions Come From, I had sworn off buying human hair as the sourcing of a lot of it is unethical. Some people get next to nothing for their hair and others have their locks taken without their consent. It created a dilemma of sorts: buy unethical hair that allows for multiple uses and is likely to last years to come? Or wear synthetic hair that contributes to 381 million tonnes of yearly global plastic waste?

The issue of hair (much like my 22-inch Brazillian) is multi-layered. From the dawn of civilisation, afro hair has played an important role within our communities, from being a tool of self-expression to displaying one’s status and social position. As a Black woman, I didn’t have the luxury of mirroring my white low-waste peers when it came to putting minimal time and effort into hair styling. My natural hair itself requires several hours of maintenance a week, not to mention a plethora of products to keep it looking ‘presentable’.

Thankfully, when it comes to the hair I continue to use for extensions, I ultimately haven’t had to make a choice between exploitation or environmental impact. As I discovered, not only is it possible to clean and reuse synthetic braiding hair multiple times (Naturally Curly suggests using conditioner, shampoo and apple cider vinegar), but there are also a few ethical hair extension brands.

RemyNy is a New York-based company that pays women to sell their hair at a fair price. While you might look at their prices and feel they’re steep (a 12-inch weft bundle of human hair on Aliexpress retails for £22 while the same type of hair from Remy Ny retails for £115), the huge discrepancy in price made me realise that the beauty industry is so exploitative we’ve become accustomed to underpaying.

“That huge discrepancy in price has made me realise that the beauty industry is so exploitative we’ve become accustomed to cheap prices for our hair”

RadSwan, founded by influencer Freddie Harrell, is another great choice. Retailing from £110.00, they produce durable synthetic hair extensions in coily and curly textures, catered towards Black women. They also responsibly recycle the hair collected from their customers.

While RemyNy and RadSwan are amazing and innovative, changing the game in terms of being environmentally friendly, companies like this are still few and far between. This means that for many Black women who want to live a zero-waste lifestyle, they have to make sacrifices.

Beyond the lack of accessibility around hair extensions specifically, the zero-waste lifestyle now feels like a bit of a cult. Although the movement stemmed from the concept of environmental conservation which gained traction in the 60s and 70s with terms like ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, with the advent of social media, environmentalism has become more accessible and exploitable at the same time. Companies are greenwashing, and we’re seeing well-off white women who can afford to buy a set of glass mason jars and handcrafted bamboo toothbrushes encourage their audiences to overspend. Nevertheless, I march on.

There’s a reason why I choose to identify as someone who lives a ‘low-waste’ lifestyle – it’s a slightly more realistic and less intimidating approach to the zero-waste movement. My goal is to only focus on producing less waste and to be more conscious about the waste I do produce. In my household growing up the cookie tin was never discarded – instead, it came in handy as a sewing kit. Empty glass coffee jars became herb and spice holders. Reusing and recycling is not a new thing to people of colour. I follow in that tradition – even with my hair.

In the end, the low-waste movement is a flexible learning experience. If, as a Black woman starting to live a low-waste lifestyle, you have the financial means to support companies that take pride in their ethics and sustainable practices like RemyNy and RadSwan you can, and if you do not, you have already significantly reduced your carbon footprint. I’ve learned along the way that a low-waste lifestyle, like anything else, is a long process based in community.