Going back to the roots: a look into the future of the wellness industry

Author: Maia Lu, Graphics: Ella Suh

THE BRB BOTTOMLINE:

“Self-care” has been touted as the cure-all to the anxiety we are feeling during this pandemic, but it is far from being the silver bullet to physical and mental ails. The reputation of the wellness industry has been declining over the years, with its exorbitant prices and pseudoscience claims. How can we rectify the wellness industry’s problems before it is too late?


You can identify them with just one glance of their Instagram feeds. Green smoothies, excessive candle-burnings, mirror selfies that look like advertisements for Lululemon. ‘Self-care gurus’ seem to have aligned themselves to outward expression more than intrinsic nourishment, but the controversy goes deeper than this dichotomy.  

The controversy of the wellness industry   

According to The Global Wellness Institute, wellness refers to “an active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health”. It is a $4-trillion industry that has a wide-reaching scope, including products like nutrition supplements and clean beauty, as well as services like fitness studios. Wellness pervades contemporary life in all shapes and forms, be it as an escapist ideology in wellness tourism or a concept that ought to be deeply embedded in our daily lives.  

However, the wellness industry has accumulated quite the negative reputation for itself over the years. It is primarily accused of peddling pseudoscience, as it positions its “natural” ways of physical and mental healing as a counter to the scientific community. What is concerning is that despite the problems associated with this industry, it remains highly profitable. For instance, even as Goop was under fire for the claims behind its products, the company’s value remained constant and was still over $250 million. The wellness conglomerate has been arraigned for its product offerings that have been disproved as useless and even harmful to the body; one example is the jade eggs meant to improve sexual vitality. Nevertheless, despite such products being discredited as ineffective and even dangerous to the body, Goop has not faced tangible consequences, and these eggs are still on sale on its website today.     

It may seem that these industries are too big to be stopped. However, it is definitely not too late for the industry to steer itself back onto the right track: and the way to move forward is by going back to its roots.     

The wellness-industrial complex: past to present     

Over the past century, there has been a shift in the meaning of wellness from being a medium that propels social good to an exclusive, luxury good. When the wellness movement first gained mainstream attention in the 20th century, it had a clear purpose of rallying communities to utilise wellness as an act of political warfare against women’s and civil rights oppression. In the 1970s, women’s self-help health groups formed across the United States as an alternative to the paternalistic medical community, enabling women to take control of their own health.  

However, this joint mission of the wellness industry transformed into something more exclusive and sinister today. The ability to access self-care is predicated on whether one can afford it, which marginalizes communities that the historical movement aimed to uplift. A research paper by John Lynch, a professor of epidemiology and public health in the University of Adelaide, even identified income inequality in the US as most consistently linked to population health. This cost-prohibitiveness of self-care resources thus widens the gap between the have and have-nots in the country.     

The detrimental effects of the wellness-industrial complex have become particularly prominent under a global pandemic. With work-from-home obliterating work-life balance, the need for self-care has taken on a new sense of urgency. However, the response to this emphasis on self-care is the rise in popularity of exorbitant wellness aids like The Mirror, a $1500 interactive mirror that streams workouts. The materiality that defines contemporary self-care thus exacerbates the existing divide, be it racial or socio-economic, in access to health and wellness resources.            

The Right Path Forward  

However, not all products and services in the wellness industry are cost-prohibitive. While the wellness industry has amassed quite a negative reputation over recent years, we should not completely discredit it. Many wellness brands do add value to our self-care routines and support networks. These brands propagate a return to the original principle of wellness — community care. 

One example of a wellness company that embodies this focus on community is Girls’ Night In (GNI), a media company that sends out weekly newsletters on self-care tips. GNI fosters community by advocating for the accessibility of self-care concepts, while also providing affordable product recommendations. This year, they took their mission one step further through their Lounge community. GNI’s ever-growing commitment to build communities reflects self-care’s starting goal: creating inclusive spaces with twin pillars of accessibility and affordability.                                          

Even for companies that profit off selling products, not all of them are Goop-esque. Blk + Grn is a marketplace that aims to uplift Black artisans by selling their beauty products on a curated platform. It offers a range of affordable products such as sunscreens, deodorants, candles, and many more, all priced within $10-40. The community aspect is also intrinsic in their business model, varying between companies. While GNI creates a community amongst its viewership, Blk + Grn builds its community by collaborating with Black women in the beauty sphere. Blk + Grn provides its partners with the material and human capital to grow their business, forming a community within their internal model. 

There are myriads of ways to incorporate the concept of community into the wellness industry. What matters most is to avoid tokenistic gestures that bring about no tangible change, and instead ensure that community-building models are interwoven into the core of the companies.    

Consumer Responsibility: The Problem with Regulation

So why has the FDA not shut down the wellness companies that are doing harm? The problem with regulating the wellness industry is its highly deceptive marketing. Wellness companies are selling a psychological ‘feel good’ feeling, not a scientific fact. Their dissociation from science thus makes it difficult for industry watchdogs to take action against these companies. In the immediate landscape, consumers play an especially important part in regulating the wellness industry. We need to be discerning in our reception of wellness products and information and not fall for their deceptive marketing.

The messaging of wellness brands often suspends our critical faculties as brands lure us with their own aspirations. To counter this instinct, we should fact-check across various sources before ascertaining the scientific basis of a brand’s claims. Resources available online include Berkeley Wellness and Truth in Advertising, online sources for evidence-based information related to wellness. In fact, The Berkeley Wellness Letter pioneered the wellness movement in the 1980s by lending the word “wellness” its initial credibility. This once again demonstrates the importance of looking to the roots of the wellness movement.


Take-Home Points

The wellness industry has long faced controversy as an entity that peddles pseudoscience. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, where protecting our physical and mental health has taken a new sense of urgency, we need to reevaluate how we can best approach the wellness industry.    

The rate of innovation of wellness products and services has accelerated under COVID-19. In order to tackle the exploitative model that has taken over the industry, we need to combine novel products and services of self-care with steadfast values that the industry held from the start of the wellness movement. This means that brands should shift their focus to uplifting the community (as the wellness movement did in the 60s) rather than equipping the individual with exorbitant, material things. Moreover, consumers also have the onus to be aware of the information that wellness brands feed us, making judicious decisions on whether what is told to us is truth or deceptive marketing. 

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