How transforming the mica supply chain transforms lives
Joel Makower
Tue, 10/06/2020 – 02:11

Second of two parts. Read Part One here.

For those coming from the western world, visiting Jharkhand and other towns in India’s mica belt can be a jolting experience.

For one thing, mica is everywhere. “If you visited these places where mica is plentiful, the ground is literally shimmering. You can dig a hole anywhere with your hands and start to come upon big chunks of this very pretty, very shiny rock,” according to Leonardo Bonnani, founder and CEO of Sourcemap.

He explained to me how mica moves through the community.

“Effectively, they will mine as much as they can either informally, anywhere that they find it, or working in and around mines that are ostensibly closed or off-limits. They get on the property and they start digging a hole about as big as a person or as big as a family. And then they take the mica to a local warehouse. This can be a very small operation, the size of a single-family home, where people are basically sorting it out into different grades and qualities, cleaning out the impurities and then bagging it onto trucks to be transported to factories where it’s actually refined.

Being on their ground is incredibly powerful and humbling, and really makes you understand the true impact of the work and why it’s important to be doing it.

“That’s where they do the grinding and coloring; sometimes they fire-treat it. They do all sorts of things to get the right colors and textures that industry is looking for. And it’s those surprisingly small operations that are aggregating the mica, not far from where it’s mined, that have not yet been really mapped or audited.”

Setting foot in Jharkhand was an eye-opener for Sasha Calder, director of sustainability at the cosmetics company Beautycounter. “There’s a lot of jargon or technical ways of thinking about some of these challenges, but being on their ground and seeing the personal impacts on folks’ lives is incredibly powerful and humbling, and really makes you understand the true impact of the work and why it’s important to be doing it.”

Among her first impressions: “We were traveling down the streets, which are glittering with mica, and seeing really young kids walking, carrying mica home on their heads. And realizing and how different of a world it felt compared to how growing up in California was for me.”

Most of all, it was the extreme poverty. Jharkhand has made great strides in bringing down the number of poor, reducing the incidence of poverty from 75 percent to 46 percent in the 10 years ending in 2016, but the state has lagged behind other Indian states in reducing poverty, according to the World Bank. It notes: “Poverty is among the highest in the country today, particularly in the state’s southern and eastern districts,” which includes the mica belt.

Making connections

On the ground in Jharkhand, Calder set out to understand the human impact on the communities themselves. “We interviewed workers at the mines to understand how different communities are structured and what matters to them, what are their challenges and opportunities, and how they are organizing for change. We wanted to get a better understanding of the local government’s role in providing critical infrastructure, electricity, water, education and nutritional needs.”

One factor she encountered there was climate change.

“There have been increasing storms and droughts over the past years, and farmers have been pushed off their land, which isn’t as productive as it used to be,” Calder explained. “And so they’re turning to illegal mica mining to put food on the table. Many more folks are having their kids — who used to be supporting them in the fields — working in very harmful mica mining conditions to be able to purchase the food that they used to be producing in their own backyards. It was hard just seeing how this cycle continues to perpetuate itself.”

To address the child-labor issue, Beautycounter forged a partnership with the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the longtime human rights advocate, who was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating for children’s rights for more than three decades. The Nobel committee cited Satyarthi’s “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

kailash satyarthi

Kailash Satyarthi, via Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation

The partnership aimed to help Beautycounter better understand the local politics and to support a comprehensive plan for the legalization of mica mining, which would increase supply-chain transparency and traceability. The company also committed to supporting the foundation’s Child-Friendly Villages model, which empowers young people to protect themselves from trafficking, forced labor and child marriages.

All told, traveling to Jharkhand can be a tough experience for westerners. As Sourcemap’s Bonnani put it: “I go to some rough raw-material sourcing locations and this was by far the worst I’ve ever seen in terms of clear evidence of malnutrition and child labor.”

But there can be moments of joy. At one point, Calder visited a local school and met with the children in the community. As she tells it: “We were sitting around in kind of a formal setting. We were asking questions about their daily lives and you could just tell that there was both excitement but also nervousness and uncomfortableness in the room. So I shifted the conversation instead to things that matter most to kids. What do you like to do? What games do you like to play?

Sasha Calder Beautycounter

Beautycounter sustainability director Sasha Calder plays games with the locals in Jharkhand, India, courtest Beautycounter

“Immediately, the whole room’s energy shifted. And they told me about this game that they play out in the fields and I said, ‘Great, let’s go.’ And so the whole community — probably 100 of us — walked down the road together and they showed us how to play this game. And we went from not being able to speak the same language to laughing and giggling and poking fun at each other. It was just this beautiful reminder of the connection between all of us.”

Opening the curtain

As Calder began engaging with local mica miners and sellers, she was similarly met with initial resistance. “It’s really intimidating for folks to open up there, to open up their books or have you talk to their employees or go into their mines. It meant building trust early on by being completely transparent as a brand — of where we are in the journey, how we’re going to share that information. That was super critical, because once you have that trust, things move quickly.”

“It’s all about building relationships,” she continued. Eventually, “People are inviting you into their homes, into their communities, and also opening the curtain behind their business. At the same time, there’s an angle of trying to understand and make sense of what has been historically a very complicated and secretive industry. So, it’s a delicate dance, but it really works best when there’s complete transparency.”

It’s a delicate dance, but it really works best when there’s complete transparency.

There’s no substitute for being there, she said. “When you’re on the ground, you see how mica mining impacts every part of these communities’ lives. And you get to connect more deeply as humans. It gets rid of thinking of people as statistics as you hear the stories of what matters to them, and how they want their families to be safe. And how connected we are.”

Getting to transparency

One result of the November 2019 trip to Jharkhand was the creation of a proprietary blockchain-based traceability tool, in which suppliers share their sourcing data with Sourcemap. Through the process, Beautycounter can then track consistency or inconsistencies in the volume of the supplier. Changes in volume or gaps of information raise red flags about how the mica is being produced. And because the blockchain creates an immutable record of each transaction, it can prevent illegally mined mica being passed off as legal.

The blockchain solution “is a technology that has historically worked with both the coffee and chocolate industry to help create traceability in those supply chains,” Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter’s senior vice president of social mission, added. “And they’re working with us in partnership with our suppliers to help us be able to tell a story that a consumer can understand.”

Sasha Calder + Leonardo Bonnani

Sasha Calder and Leonardo Bonnani in Jharkhand, courtesy Beautycounter

The blockchain solution is helping Beautycounter move closer to its first goal: physically visiting and auditing all of its mica mines and working with suppliers to implement responsible sourcing program goals.

“By the end of this year, we will have audited all of our current mica suppliers and are currently in the process of phasing out a few products that have old suppliers that we’ve moved away from,” Dahl told me. “So, we’re kind of in that transition right now. And we have realistic expectations around what a fully traceable mica supply chain looks like, which is the next step after we have our audits done.” She acknowledges “that’s probably several years down the road just given the complexity.”

Talking the talk

Earlier this year, Beautycounter began to talk to its consumers — and, by extension, the world — about its mica initiatives. It was hardly the first company to do so. A range of other brands, from L’Oréal to Lush, have pages on their websites dedicated to answering frequently asked questions about mica and child labor.

Beautycounter’s mica page goes beyond FAQs, offering information and resources not just to consumers but also to suppliers and public officials. It encourages visitors to “ask your elected officials to stop the importation of products produced using forced labor.” It also features a 12-minute video, much of it taken during Calder’s November trip to Jharkhand, about the company’s work in India.

“We use the video to tell the story in the same way Patagonia has for apparel and other companies are trying to do,” Dahl said. “It’s just to say, we don’t have all the answers and that’s okay. The fact of the matter is we’re starting to ask the questions. And hopefully, that can start to normalize this kind of transparency journey for other brands. So, it feels less scary because the fear has been holding brands back for decades. And the fear and secrecy is what allows human rights abuses to perpetuate.”

One goal of the company’s outreach on mica is to ensure that efforts to eliminate forced labor in mica supply chains is more than a check-the-box activity for other companies.

I’m sure there’s a handful of companies that don’t want to ask the questions because they don’t want the answers. Because once you get the answers, you have to deal with it.

“I think some brands think they are going deep,” Dahl explained. “And they just are taking their suppliers’ word for it. ‘Oh, you’re the expert, you’re the supplier, you’ve given me this thing that looks official. So why would I even need to dig even deeper?’ I think a lot of brands are just making assumptions that the information they’ve received is credible, and it gives them the confidence to feel like they’re making good decisions. And I’m sure there’s a handful of companies that don’t want to ask the questions because they don’t want the answers. Because once you get the answers, you have to deal with it.”

She added: “At the end of the day, you’re never really sure who’s going to be struck by or be moved by a story and then change their consumer behavior as a result.”

The power of one

Among the things that Beautycounter has demonstrated is that the power of even one company — a small, privately held company at that — can be significant.

“Beautycounter was very helpful,” Bonnani told me. “It helped get other industry stakeholders to start talking about mica. We’ve seen an uptick in interest from the auto industry, for example, even though they’re just buying paint that has mica in it. We’ve heard from half a dozen auto companies since Beautycounter made that documentary.”

“We definitely get an uptick of requests or inquiries about mica sourcing after there’s a big headline about it,” Erin Turner, business development manager, Effect Pigments for Cosmetics, at BASF, told me.

For a growing number of cosmetics companies, responsibly sourced mica is true to brand. “You see the little guys start to differentiate using mica sourcing,” said Turner, who works with Beautycounter on the final leg of mica’s journey: processing it into the form that’s needed to go into various cosmetics recipes. “We definitely see an uptick — not only questionnaires but requests for audits on site.

“I think Beautycounter has been very brave in taking their customers along for the ride. And they say upfront, this is a messy journey. But we have to start somewhere. I think it’s very authentic the way that they’re bringing their customers along.”

For Beautycounter, its mica journey is also part of this particular moment, as Lindsay Dahl explained.

“I think in general, the cultural conversation around equity that’s happening across the country is asking people to think differently about the brands that they’re supporting. It’s also having people think about equity in very new ways. It feels more relevant for people to think, ‘Oh, wait, I actually do care about a family I’ve never met in India.’ It does kind of continue the conversation of caring about people at a very human level. It’s as simple as that.”

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

Pull Quote
Being on their ground is incredibly powerful and humbling, and really makes you understand the true impact of the work and why it’s important to be doing it.
It’s a delicate dance, but it really works best when there’s complete transparency.
I’m sure there’s a handful of companies that don’t want to ask the questions because they don’t want the answers. Because once you get the answers, you have to deal with it.
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Mica through a childs eye

Mica, through a child’s eye. All photos courtesy Beautycounter.

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