After years of hard work, I am pleased to present the results of an extensive empirical study on exports of services and related imports of goods: The Production of Hair Cuts around the World. My study builds upon earlier works of Socrates, François de la Rochefoucauld and Mark Twain. An update is scheduled for 2030 – watch this space.
The empirical study on the imports and exports of goods and services suggests that there exist various correlations between a country’s GDP per capita, the propensity of hairdressers to have tattoos, the application of razor technologies in saloons, and services trade under WTO GATS Mode 2. It is also confirmed that in order to export services, a country usually needs to import goods (WTO GATT). The export of haircutting services frequently involves the imports of goods (shampoos, scissors, razors, chairs, mirrors etc) and, at times, the employment of guest workers. It may also lead to further exports of goods.
We empirically tested a total of 49 hair salons in 47 countries.* While the researcher benefited from speaking various languages, at times the gathering of evidence had to rely on the use of hand-language, to point out the desired shortening of the hair. The fact finding required a certain flexibility as regards the places and hygienic measures adopted by the service providers.
Main findings of the study
The main statistical findings are summarized in Table 1.
Note: The percentage share under “Gender” is an estimate, as on two occasions there was incomplete information. The percentage share under “Tattoo” is likely to be too low, as only visible evidence was considered.
A standard gent’s haircut in Geneva costs around $45 to 50 – while in Lahore, Pakistan, the researcher paid around 60 cents (plus a 50% tip). The median price per hair cut was $8. Where the price was higher, it was more likely to find foreign workers cutting the hair, making use of nationally produced materials (e.g. a Chinese barber in Toronto, a barber from Barbados in London, or the Frisösin from Laos in Vienna). Lower prices were charged in those countries where the coiffeur or coiffeuse was local, making use of imported scissors or shampoos. In a number of smaller countries (e.g. Marshall Islands, Maldives or the United Arab Emirates), both – the materials and the service providers – were imports.
The study’s results point to three important lessons for life.
1. The only thing constant in life is change
Hair grows so that it can be cut. Think of it. Isn’t this exactly what Rochefoucauld meant when he said “The only thing constant in life is change“? The initial idea is attributed to Heraclitus, and it is a thought, or even attitude, that I have found very helpful when stumbling through life.
2. I know I know nothing
Travelling the world, daring to enter all kinds of hair saloons, is a good training to keep an open mind. The more I see, the more I am aware of all what is still to be learned. Trying to follow Socrates, I aim at remaining open and tolerant – except against intolerance and fixed views such as “faith“.
3. The purpose of work
As a United Nations staff, I feel at times like Tom Sawyer’s friends in the fence whitewashing story by Mark Twain. The experience confirms a “great law of human action (…) that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” Put differently, it was and still is a privilege to work for the United Nations and undertake empirical studies on GATT and GATS.
The way forward
As regards the way forward, it has to be pointed out that the purchase of haircutting services may become less likely when the head of the potential client outgrows the hair covering that same head. As the average age of capacity building experts from the United Nations goes up, the trade balance of goods of developing countries might improve (there will be fewer imports of scissors and shampoos), while that of service exports worsens (there will be fewer haircuts sold to foreign visitors). If the hair stops growing entirely, alternative areas of empirical research may need to be found. This researcher’s proposal is for pedicure (see one sample in the Annex below).
We appreciated the comments and peer review received upon an earlier version of this study, which was included in a book in honour of Mohan Panicker, available via Research Gate.
 Unfortunately, at times, the illustration of e.g. 0.4 cm with the help of the researcher’s thumb and finger was interpreted wrongly by the service provider. Instead of having cut off only 0.4 cm of the previously existing hair, once the researcher put back his glasses after the haircut, he noticed to his astonishment that due to language problems, the service provider had understood that only 0.4 cm of hair should be left on the head. This type of misunderstanding led to a delay in the accumulation of empirical evidence, because, as a consequence, the next hair cut had to wait several months instead of just a few weeks.
Annex: The empirical evidence
* The initial study was concluded in early 2016 with 49 countries. Since then, additional samples were gathered. The list of countries with hair cuts as of June 2021: Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, Chile , China, Colombia, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire , Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kirghistan, Korea, Lesotho, Liberia, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Rwanda, Sao Tomé & Principe, Serbia, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Viet Nam. Total: 72 countries with hair cuts.