To Ciara Imani May, founding CEO of Rebundle, the first U.S. plant-based braiding hair company, the beauty industry has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. Despite developments in the sector leading skin care and hair care down a greener path, “there’s still much work to be done,” May told FootPrint Coalition, especially in regard to Black hair care.
Rebundle made splashes last year as a pioneering startup for sustainable Black hair care. Combating climate change will require decarbonization and more sustainable practices across every division of our lives. The beauty and personal care market accounts for $534 billion in 2022. A fourth of that market is haircare. When the average American spends $244 and $313 on cosmetics a month, the beauty industry produces billions upon billions of plastic, the vast majority of which is unrecyclable.
Not only is making these products more sustainable crucial but ensuring that beauty’s sustainability movement doesn’t leave out a large portion of its consumers carries just as much weight.
Prior to Rebundle, plant-based braiding hair was untapped in the U.S. Braiding hair refers to coarse, textured synthetic hair extensions used by African Americans in a variety of protective and cultural styles. The most common is Kanekalon, a plastic hair that, like many household products, emits volatile organic compounds or VOCs. Aside from being potentially toxic and carcinogenic, these VOCs can have adverse effects on indoor air quality.
Plastic synthetic hair is one product among many tested in a 2018 study published in the Environmental Research journal Silent Spring Institute.
The researchers tested 18 different products typically aimed at Black women including afro synthetic hair, hot oils, anti-frizz hair polishes, leave-in conditioners, root stimulators, hair lotions, and relaxers.
They found that most products tested used toxic chemicals banned in places like the European Union and regulated in California for both their harmful effects on the environment and their association with health effects like reproductive disorders, birth defects, asthma, and cancer.
According to May, the reason that it’s been this way for so long is because of a lack of opportunities for disruption in the value chain.
“Because of the way the [hair extension] industry is structured, most, if not all, of the manufacturing is done in different parts of Asia, and then imported into the States,” she said. “There's not a lot of disruption along the value chain for people to make informed decisions about how the products are being sourced, made, and distributed.”
That’s why Rebundle is a direct-to-consumer product, from care to education, all the way up to working directly with braiders: The industry “has not been set up for the people who primarily wear the products to succeed,” May said.
Rebundle’s ReGen Hair Fiber, the key technology of the startup’s Braidbetter hair line, is different from traditional synthetic braiding hair because it’s regenerative: made with 97% biobased materials, earning it the USDA's Certified Biobased Product label. The company avoids the endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in most plastic synthetic hair brands, making the hair microbiome friendly, reusable, vegan, and itch-free all because of its secret ingredient: banana fibers.
Banana fibers stood out to May because of how close they resemble her own hair texture. It had the potential to be a coarse, flexible, and durable alternative to plastic hair. Throughout developing the product, May worked closely with material scientists, formulation scientists, and chemical engineers to bring a biodegradable hair fiber to life.
As she began her business, May felt the challenges of initial fundraising and the story-storytelling element of it. “The people that I was pitching to, for the most part, didn't wear hair extensions,” she said. While it requires less convincing now, it took a long time for May to craft the story in a way that anyone could understand the problem.
The moment May knew her venture would be a success was during its first launch last year.
“Once we put it out into the world, the reception was so positive, and the demand was so high. That's when I knew that we had something that people were really interested in and willing to wait for it,” she said. May calls the community feedback from the first launch to now a “pleasant surprise.”
“People want what we have. They want better for themselves and for their scalps and their bodies. And so I'm glad that we're doing work that people are wanting and excited about.”
At the beginning of this year, the startup raised $1.4 million in pre-seed funding. May says the funding is going toward marketing sales, production, R&D, and operations. The startup is also in the process of relocating to an in-construction facility in May’s home state, Missouri. Prior, the company was based in North Carolina, but Arch Grants, an economic development grant, is allowing Rebundle to make the move.
Having the product close to home will allow the team “to monitor, control and identify areas of growth and opportunity in a way that I don't necessarily think is doable when you're making this type of product far from home, far from the consumer, and far from the stakeholders,” May said. The startup currently employs five full-time employees, but funds will also be used to hire more employees over the next quarters.
In the future, Rebundle wants to expand its product line, as it’s a “hot topic” in its community. However, for now, the startup plans to focus on its existing Briadbetter product, relaunched this week, to combat what they feel is one of the biggest contributors to hair extension pollution.
On top of the sustainability and health benefits of Rebundle’s product line, the company also acts as a liaison for consumers to recycle their previous plastic hair.
Mass-produced since the 1950s, plastic hair accumulates millions of pounds of waste worldwide. To divert plastic hair from landfills, Rebundle accepts all brands and colors of plastic synthetic hair which goes on to be recycled into outdoor furniture, decking, and more. At present, the company has recycled 278 pounds of hair by partnering with the impact media organization 5 Media.
The hair industry is ripe for innovation, May told FootPrint Coalition. “I think we’ve set a good precedent for what this industry is capable of.”