Wash, blow dry and 1.5 degrees please: hairdressers trained to talk about climate action
Inside this chic Sydney hair salon, the chat between stylists and clients could be much the same as in any other hairdressers around the world. Some small talk. The ubiquitous and occasionally mundane chat about holidays and traffic. For regulars, the conversation can move to the deeply personal before you can say semi-tint or shag cut.
In fact, there is only one easily missable clue in the front window that conversations inside Paloma might, when the occasion arises, be a bit different. A poster reads: “This salon chats about love, life & climate action.”
“The weather is the hook. You can take a cue from that,” says Prof Lesley Hughes, one of two climate scientists who have helped run workshops to give hairdressers the tools for times when the conversation turns to the existential.
“You can show the science until you’re blue in the face but what can be more effective are people who you trust talking about it. It’s important to show it’s not a subject to be afraid of.”
More than 400 hairdressers have attended workshops as part of a project called A Brush With Climate being driven by Paloma’s owner, Paloma Rose Garcia.
During the sessions, hairdressers hear the basics of climate science and get to role play how conversations might go. They also take one of the posters back to their own salons.
“We’re relationship builders,” says Garcia. “We suggest some easy ways to introduce climate to the conversation and the biggest one is definitely the weather. But we encourage all the hairdressers to make it their own story.”
Some guests, she says “feel helpless and they’re a bit embarrassed that they don’t understand the science”, but want to know more. Mostly, clients accept the basis for climate action but don’t know what to do next.
Garcia tells a story about one regular client, a mother of two. After having the climate chat and talking about solar power and ethical banking, she left happy.
“She came back eight weeks later and she’s made all these changes. She was really proud. But also she’d been talking to all her girlfriends about it too. It might just be a 20-minute conversation but it can be really powerful.”
Jose Bryce Smith is founder of haircare company O&M with a focus on environmentally friendlier and healthier products with less chemicals. She’s partnering with Garcia to build the project. They’re already fielding calls from the industry in the UK who want to know more.
“Some women keep their hairdressers for a long time and they’ll tell them their secrets – they’re the unpaid therapist,” says Smith.
Not every chat – or even most of them – will be about climate change, say Smith and Garcia. As pseudo-experts in human social interactions, hairdressers tend to know when it’s time to go quiet or change the subject.
“For women, hair is so much a part of our identity and there’s a lot of trust that goes into that. You’re letting someone touch your hair and so you have to like them. That trust allows them to start that conversation.
“There have been so many salons affected by fires and floods in the last few years in Australia. We could see what was happening to small businesses and how they were being affected by climate change – they’re casualties of what’s happening.”
Social researcher Dr Rebecca Huntley, author of How To Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, also talks to the hairdressers at the workshops.
Huntley says hairdressers can reach important segments of the Australian public – people who make up about 40% of the population and are either concerned or cautious about climate, but don’t dismiss it or deny it’s a problem.
“We know those people tend to avoid newspapers or books or any information really that broadcasts itself as being about climate change,” says Huntley.
“But when we ask those people who they want to hear from about climate change they often say their friends and family. They’ll say climate change is a problem and they want to do more, but they want to hear that from people who are personally relevant to them and are relatable.”
Huntley says as far as making a difference goes, having conversations about climate – if there are enough of them – can make real change.
“The more that we make talking about climate change something that we just do all the time, the more likely it is we create a broad social mandate for climate action.”
There is evidence, too, that hairdressers and beauticians have a unique role in societies.
Dr Hannah McCann, a senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne, is researching the social and emotional role that hairdressers have with their clients.
She says the hours at a time spent together, and the fact there’s plenty of touching, makes the relationship different from almost any other.
“It’s both social, with the chit-chat, but also people can end up disclosing a lot of things. I’ve theorised that’s because of the intimacy. You might talk to your Uber driver, but they’re not touching your hair.”
McCann has been interviewing hairdressers since 2017 and says clients will disclose personal secrets in the salon – including miscarriages, mental health problems or violence in relationships – that they won’t reveal to anyone else.
“Often you can be in there for a long time, but it is a place where there is touch. There’s an intimacy that’s different – and people go back so the relationships build over time,” she says.
She says in 2019 and 2020, hairdressers were having a lot of conversations about the black summer bushfires that ravaged much of Australia’s east coast.
“People would be expressing some climate anxiety about the things that are happening. They’ve talked about events like bushfires and it would be good to have some skills to navigate those conversations.”
McCann says in the long-term, the industry needs to acknowledge the social role hairdressers play – and the burden they carry when conversations do become emotionally heavy – and to train apprentices on how to help and cope themselves.
The Brush With Climate project may have come along at just the right time – not only because at the 2022 federal election a record number of independent candidates (all female and all very pro-climate action) were elected to parliament.
“There’s been a dramatic change in the industry in the last eight years or so,” says Paul Frasca, the co-founder of Sustainable Salons, an Australian “profit-for-purpose” company that recovers recyclables such as shampoo bottles and hair and uses them to create new closed-loop products.
“There’s a bit of a green army of hairdressers and beauticians that are really passionate. But some hairdressers are scared to talk about sustainability and climate change because they don’t know enough. That’s what’s really great about what Paloma is doing.”
Among the 1,500 businesses served by Sustainable Salons, Frasca says “dozens” were ravaged in the country’s recent horror fires and devastating floods.
He says in surveys of the industry, there’s a common story. Hairdressers are often young mums and their children are learning more about environmental issues and climate change. And they want to see action.
“These children are coming home and they’re yelling,” says Frasca. “Hairdressers are signing up to this because they want to be on the right side of history.”