By Jean Sanders
When people think of wellness, they usually think of happy, smiling people sitting on a hillside doing yoga. They think of people living healthy, balanced and wholesome lives. Maybe they think of exercise, nutrition, or a positive mindset. But usually, people do not think of a $3.7 trillion industry, which is the current value of the global wellness sector.
The wellness industry consists of everything from mindfulness meditation apps—which raked in $15 million in app store sales last year—to Gwyneth Paltrow’s one-day wellness summit which took place in Culver City, California, this summer. At the summit, In Goop Health, attendees paid up to $1,500 for a day of wellness-themed panels and, of course, a Sweetgreen salad or two.
According to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit research and educational resource covering the wellness industry, the global wellness industry grew from $3.36 trillion in 2013 to $3.72 trillion in 2015. The industry consists of different areas including workplace wellness, personalized medicine, nutrition and weight loss, fitness and beauty and anti aging, according to the institute.
Why does it matter that the wellness industry is worth so much? Personal well-being is an individualized and holistic concept that looks different for everyone. When a highly-individualized concept becomes a trillion dollar industry, there will inevitably be some negative outcomes. The profit of wellness-related companies is directly related to the number of people who feel unwell and want to spend money to feel better.
“I think that when you buy a wellness product, you do not immediately think of the industry behind it. People just think, ‘Oh, I am going to buy this product just for me and to improve my mental health.’ There is just more behind it than we realize because most of those products are made by corporations and big companies,” says Northwestern freshman Matthew de Boer, a member of Active Minds, a group that utilizes student voices to change the conversation about mental health on campus.
That is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with purchasing products that make you feel better. The problem comes when businesses purposely attempt to make people feel unwell, or exploit those who are not feeling well, to drive profits.
Let’s revisit Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle enterprise Goop, which describes itself as having “cutting-edge wellness advice from doctors.” Truth in Advertising, an advertising watchdog group, has recently filed two complaints with California district attorneys against the website for making what they say are over 50 questionable claims about various health benefits offered by products that they advertise on their website. Some examples of these “benefits” include a $66 dollar Jade egg that a Goop article described as having the ability to “increase vaginal muscle tone, hormonal balance, and feminine energy in general,” a claim that a California gynecologist described as “the biggest load of garbage” in a Washington Post article.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of American adults have an anxiety disorder, and females are 60 percent more likely to experience an anxiety disorder. Not only does Goop post articles perpetuating claims that have been rejected by doctors-- such as the idea that bras cause breast cancer, or that the Epstein-Barr virus is the root of chronic illnesses-- but they also prey on the anxiety they produce by these claims, and advertise products they claim will help. An example of one of these products is Body Vibes’ wearable stickers (which cost $30 for a pack of five), which Goop says can “alleviate physical tension and anxiety.”
The sometimes exploitative nature of the wellness industry also reveals itself through wellness and fitness influencers on Instagram. They may inspire some to eat healthier foods and exercise more regularly, but they also may manipulate those aspiring to look a certain way to buy the products that they sponsor. For example, Steph Elswood, known as @healthychefsteph on Instagram, has almost 160,000 followers and posts transformation photos with captions that discuss how she used to have low-self esteem and body confidence issues. In a post this summer, she advertised a Facebook livestream she was hosting all about body confidence, which also happened to be sponsored by St. Tropez Tan, in which those who tuned into the stream could win a year's supply of self-tanning products, promoting the message that being tan could solve a person’s body confidence issues.
When someone buys any of the products sponsored by so-called wellness gurus, the brand and the influencer both make money. But just how much does buying Flat Tummy Tea, or any of the other thousands of wellness products on Instagram, actually benefit consumers?
The booming wellness industry has helped many become more aware of the importance of health and wellness, and helped to make words like “self-care” become apart of regular conversation. There are certainly wellness-related products that help many people to feel better.
However, it is important to view the wellness sector for what it is: a moneymaking industry. Yes, trillion dollar industries can be effective in making people feel better, but they can also take advantage of those who are vulnerable. It is important to be an informed consumer, and part of that is recognizing the ways the wellness industry may be exploiting people rather than helping them.