From the healthy nail salon program,

The Feministing Five: California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative

As The New York Times covered in a two-piece series last week, the current state of nail salons in the United States is full of labor abuse, reproductive injustices, and toxic work environments. The Times highlighted the voices of nail salon workers in New York City, and also pointed to the great work of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke with Catherine Porter, policy director of the Collaborative, to learn more about what nail salon organizers are doing across the state and the country.

The Collaborative, established in 2005 and based in Oakland, California, seeks to “improve the health, safety, and rights of the nail and beauty care workforce to achieve a healthier, more sustainable, and just industry.” They have done fantastic work in their local communities and have surely set an incredible example for many more.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative’s Catherine Porter!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. To get us started, could you describe the history behind the Collaborative? 

Catherine Porter: The Collaborative was founded in 2005 in response to concern that staff at Asian Health Services were seeing women who worked in nail salons coming in with a range of different health problems, from pretty bad skin rashes to respiratory problem to watery eyes and things like that. Asian Health Services is located in Oakland’s Chinatown and the nail salon industry in California is prominently Vietnamese — at least 80 percent of the community is Vietnamese. As such, the folks in Asian Health Services started seeing this pattern. The Nail Salon Collaborative was founded to start looking at the cause of these health effects and what could be done about it.

SB: Could you describe some of the Collaborative’s programs? 

CP: We approach making nail salons healthier places to work through a three-piece strategy — through outreach and education, through policy advocacy, and through research. One of our primary campaigns is our Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program. Our first foray into that work was with San Francisco through an ordinance. The program operates in ways that are similar to Green Business programs which encourage behavior through rewarding it. Salons have to meet certain criteria, which include using safer products, improving ventilation, and participating in a training about best practices and safer alternatives. From San Francisco, the Collaborative started advocating throughout the Bay Area and to Southern California. We work to get these programs initiated in the first place and to work with local communities to get them supported, particularly in regards to culture and language.

SB: Much of the recent reaction to the conditions of nail salon workers have been focused on individual solutions from the side of the consumer. What are additional systemic or broader actions that folks could take? 

CP: Our focus at the Collaborative is primarily on the health and safety on nail salons, and so a large part of our work is about the toxic chemicals that our community is exposed to. Our Healthy Nail Salon Recognition is one way to build progress through volunteer programs on the part of salon owners. We also work on larger policy reform with other coalitions to advance chemical and cosmetic standards.

For instance, there is currently a bill that has been introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein that would improve the regulation of cosmetics at a federal level. There is also a bill in the House of Representatives, authored by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, which is an even more comprehensive bill. A problem with cosmetics, and so many of the products that we use, is that we assume that these products are safe before they are put on the market. The thing is, we just don’t know that for sure. We need legislation that would actually require that products are shown to be safe before they are put on shelves. For instance, for food and drugs, there has to be some demonstration that they are safe, and we think the same ought to apply to cosmetics.

On the state level in California, there is a Safer Consumer Regulatory Process within the EPA. It approaches the regulation of products that calls for safer formulations and alternatives. It’s a very slow-moving program, but there are hopes that it can drive the industry to come up with their products in the safest way possible from the outset.

Currently, at either the state or federal level, there is no requirement that a product is safe from the get-go from the manufacturer. There are all sorts of carcinogens and asthmagens that can be in cosmetic products, and there is no law against that.

So that’s what’s going on the broader policy level. I’d suggest that folks call their representative or senator and tell them that they support comprehensive cosmetic policy reform for the Schakowsky or Feinstein bills. You can start educating your representatives on why this is so important.

Individuals can make changes by going into a nail salon and asking for safer products and being willing to pay more for these services.

SB: If we were to call you back in five years and all of your wildest activist dreams came true, what would the Collaborative have accomplished? 

CP: I would hope that the industry continues to become more sustainable in terms of the products that are used. I would hope that the manufactures themselves would create safer products, including polishes, removers, and disinfectants. I would hope that women become more aware of the chemicals in these products and that they have greater empathy for the women who face these products everyday. As someone who gets a pedicure or a manicure, you may not be in the salon very often. We all need to put ourselves in the shoes of the low-wage working women who are trying to bring in an income. I would hope that salons would be charging more for their services, and they would be able to provide their employees with better wages and better services.

SB: Let’s pretend that you are stranded on a desert island. You can take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose? 

CP: I would take Alice Munro because she does such an amazing job of capturing the female condition through her literature. For food, I’d bring chocolate chip cookies and for beverage, I’d bring water.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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