WORDS BY DEONNA ANDERSON
Two Black women share their journey to launch a toxic-free, plastic-free hair company for Black folks in a special guest edition of The Frontline.
Search “plant-based hair extensions” into your favorite search engine, and you’ll likely see the company Rebundle at the top of your search results.
The startup, which is on a mission to offer an alternative to the plastic synthetic hair that many Black women are used to wearing in cornrows and box braids, recently raised $1.4 million in funding.
Rebundle’s mission was defined in the summer of 2019, when its cofounder Ciara Imani May experienced scalp irritation and inflammation from her braided hair.
“I was researching alternatives and trying to figure out what was causing the irritation while also trying to maintain a low-waste lifestyle,” May said. “I realized that those materials were not only harmful to my body, but also equally harmful to the environment, and needed something that would solve both problems.”
Hair extensions are typically made from fine plastic fibers, such as acrylic, polyester, or polyvinyl chloride (all of which come from fossil fuels). And at their end of life, they end up in landfills or oceans. Additionally, these plastic materials contribute to the climate crisis through their manufacturing processes—mostly taking place in China, Japan, and Korea—but it’s hard to find solid numbers on the industry contribution because it lacks regulation.
“Regulations are needed on all hair products, synthetic or real. A fair-trade and transparent supply chain with proper health and safety legislation for the manufacture, use, and disposal of synthetic hair is required,” Beth Summers, codirector of the U.K.-based Women’s Environmental Network, told Refinery 29.
In the meantime, companies like Rebundle are trying to address the problem by using materials that are biodegradable and less environmentally harmful—like banana fibers.
“Something we like to say often is that our products are better for our scalps and better for our environment,” said Danielle Washington, cofounder and chief marketing officer at Rebundle, noting that the first “our” refers to people who wear Rebundle’s product, largely Black women and Black people who wear braided styles.
Washington said the subsequent “our” in that phrase, about the product’s impact on the environment, refers to everyone. “It’s an everybody problem, what we’re solving here,” Washington said, pointing to the fact that we all rely on the environment to survive. “It’s considerate of the person who’s maybe never even heard of braiding hair or the person who never intends to wear it… Rebundle is solving a problem that is larger than ourselves.”
Read on to learn about how May and Washington are solving these beauty and environmental challenges simultaneously.
You mentioned that you were already trying to live low-waste when you launched Rebundle. I’m curious how environmental issues were already something that you were passionate about.
CIARA IMANI MAY
I’ve always tried to be a really good steward of the environment by being a conscious consumer and observing the amount of products I use to minimize my waste. But at that time, I really got into it because I wanted to live that way. I started thinking about all the ways I interact with products and things that I did, things that I purchased. I hadn’t considered how my hair played into that until it married with how it felt on my scalp and identifying like, Oh, this is also a problem that has to be solved. From that standpoint, all those years ago, I just wanted to minimize my waste. And I wanted to figure out what products could help me do that—and hair just happened to be on that list.
Danielle, I’m curious about that question for you, as well. When did you come into the fold to be a cofounder and CMO of Rebundle?
Sustainability for me was kind of just what I had learned in school, which is reduce, reuse, recycle. I didn’t really have any other desire or avenue to learn about sustainability in a greater capacity outside of those three terms. Growing up, we definitely took our recycling out to the end of our driveway, but we didn’t necessarily take it to the lengths that I’ve learned from Ciara—a place to recycle your plastic water bottles or taking your grocery bags to the grocery store so they can reuse them. I wasn’t that specific.
When I learned that there was a world where we could have plant-based braiding hair as opposed to plastic, my mind was blown. When I think about how I got involved with Rebundle, it really started with wanting to support my friend Ciara. Our relationship really blossomed, and we became best friends as we’ve worked through what it looks like to build Rebundle. I started in a good old-fashioned consulting capacity: I noticed my friend needed support in telling her story and controlling that narrative. That is so often something that Black women have to do cautiously in order to make sure that their stories are told in a way that makes sense to them and their community while protecting their vulnerability.
I turned into a CMO when we knew that we needed to get some good imagery and build our brand. From there, turning cofounder after launching our product in January, we realized that there were some gaps in our business that needed to be filled. And when you’re a solo founder, you have to carry the weight of all of those decisions on your own. It’s a lot easier to walk with a friend along the way. And I know that Ciara knew that when she invited me along the journey.
We had very different reasons at the outset. But what we realized is that, beyond our friendship, we were fighting for the same things. And it just made sense to balance the skill sets that we have to come together to solve this problem for the two of us, you, your family, our families, our friends—and all the people we know who wear braids.
“When I learned that there was a world where we could have plant-based braiding hair as opposed to plastic, my mind was blown.”
How did you arrive at using banana fiber? Were there other materials that you also considered?
We went through lots of different materials. We looked at what was already out there in the market and what people were using. I had the opportunity to work with a group of material scientists at North Carolina Central. We worked through various materials, and banana was the top choice. We were able to get different samples from different places to assess its playability and also how well it matches our hair. Banana just beat a lot of the other materials that were available though it’s not the only one that we’ll ever be using in our products.
We had to make a leap from plastic to something completely different because of the chemical makeup of the plastic hair that is on the market. When building the business, we were literally starting from ground zero and answering the question: What is something else that can be used for braiding hair that is better for scalps and better for our environment? We were shooting in the dark to figure it out.
I spent a lot of time with the plastics trying to figure out how it could be more healthy. How could it be more friendly? How could it be better? The hair extension industry is so vast, and it’s also so far away, mostly in Asian countries. I had no one to confirm the validity of those products to tell me exactly what was causing the irritation or what the hair was fully made out of. I had to order lab samples myself. I had very little confidence in the value plastics had to offer and gave up on it.
It feels like the lack of transparency around those products is something that stuck with you all. I noticed on your website that you value transparency, and Rebundle puts the ingredients on its packaging.
Shifting a bit. When I was preparing for this interview, I Googled “plant-based hair extensions,” and Rebundle is the first company that came up. But there are other companies also doing similar work. Do you think that the Black beauty industry is leading in trying to solve these problems for Black women, Black trans people, Black nonbinary people, or any Black person who wears extensions?
I can shout out brands I know that are trying to emerge as leaders. When I think about education, I think of Curlmix. Curlmix is a natural hair beauty brand that sells gels and creams that can help with your everyday wash and go. The brand’s fierce leaders, Kim and Tim Lewis, are working to educate Black consumers who have curly hair about products that are non-toxic.
I see Black beauty brands that are trying to hone in on education. And I think that there’s always room for us to be better. We do see hair extension companies that make claims to be itch-free, but the non-toxic portion is what we’re not seeing. That’s where Rebundle steps in. Ci, what do you think?
There’s a shift happening in the hair industry and in beauty toward clean products, more transparency, and more inclusion. But what you see less of today are the intersections that exist between certain products—like sustainability and Black hair care. And I think the direction we’re going in, others will follow.
I’d like to go back to the supply chain thread that we started pulling. Can you share a little bit about how you actually source the banana fibers?
We’ve been able to identify regions outside the U.S. where this fruit is plentiful though the full value of the plant is not being realized. We are creating value there and creating additional income for small-scale farmers in small communities who are already using the rest of the tree. So to answer your question, but to walk around it a bit, we have our own agenda for how we want to share that story because of the inherent value we’re creating not only for the waste material itself (because otherwise it would be used for mulch), but also the lives we’re able to impact both internationally and domestically with something that we’ve all known for all of our lives: bananas.
Ciara, you started speaking to this other question that I have. How do you think about the sustainability of your workers in your supply chain—from pay to treatment? It sounds like you all are trying to make sure that the workers across your supply chain are taken care of.
Yes, it’s something we talk about internally a lot. Plastic hair is similar to fast fashion. You can get it at your local beauty supply store, Amazon, or the corner store. And that’s not the vision we have for Rebundle. Our goal isn’t to serve people so quickly and excessively that it cheapens the product and brand. So it’s something we are constantly thinking about as we grow, especially being a venture capital-funded company. How do we maintain an appropriate ethos but also a commitment to serving as many people as sustainably possible?
I hear you. I got my hair braided this week. I went to the beauty supply store, and there were so many different options for hair. I totally get where you’re coming from, and the fact that hair is available on Amazon and so many websites is wild.
I was just talking about this yesterday: the fact that plastic synthetic braiding hair can be purchased anywhere, it seems. I often compare it to the Forever 21s of the world. What we don’t always consider is the social impact of those products being so readily available, how their workers feel, and the carbon emissions that come from the entire supply chain.
We definitely are having conversations about it. You can’t ignore it—but that same thinking can be applied to braiding hair. We want to make sure that the people who support Rebundle from the beginning to end are always considered. We think about the carbon emissions, and we try to think about what it looks like to scale with the planet in mind.
For my last question, if you were to pick one thing for the beauty industry to improve in the next year, what would that be?
Good question. I think the obvious answer is the environmental impact of products. And the one that comes up the most is packaging. If there were a way for everyone to commit to very little packaging, I wonder what the impact of that would be.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.