Inside the Big Business of Wellness
Is the ballooning trillion-dollar wellness industry still on the rise — or is it about to burst?
Contrary to popular belief, the art of living well is wildly uncomplicated. Daily exercise, ample sleep and stress management go a long way in helping us feel our best. But sugarcoat it and wrap it in something shiny, and you have the booming wellness market, valued at $4.5 trillion globally. Adaptogenic drinks, CBD skincare and high-tech yoga mats are just a small sampling of the endless items vying for our attention — and our dollars — all in the name of self-care.
The wellness industry’s growth didn’t happen overnight; it’s steadily garnered interest year after year. But 2020 sped up demand. The coronavirus pandemic turned the page to a never-before-seen chapter, one that pushed both healthcare and self-care — two sides of the same coin — to the forefront of our minds and our daily conversations.
So has the super-saturated market helped us get well? In a word: Maybe. Luxe leggings and LED face masks won’t make it happen on their own, though. Wellness, after all, transcends all the stuff we can buy. It’s about making positive lifestyle choices and not overindulging in not-so-great ones, like energy drinks as a substitute for sleep.
Today’s definition of self-care actually isn’t all that different than in decades past. Just look to the father of wellness, Halbert L. Dunn, MD, who laid the foundation for the modern-day movement. Back in the 1950s, he introduced the concept as “a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.” Seems simple enough, right?
Wellness went mainstream in the 21st century, having been largely viewed as a fringe woo-woo fad up until that point thanks to its ancient and spiritual origins. Once solely synonymous with centuries-old disciplines (think Ayurveda and homeopathy), it transitioned from niche to normal as we sought out new ways to take control of our health.
Fast-forward to today: The big business of wellness is thriving, but it’s riddled with flaws. Although there are devotees aplenty, skeptics say it’s a bubble that’s about to burst. That it’s diet culture in disguise. That it’s not inclusive, nor diverse. That companies are stamping “wellness” onto all kinds of items for profit. In fact, there’s even an entire anti-wellness movement calling for an overhaul of the industry and a reframing of how we approach well-being.
So what does wellness look like when you pull apart its thousand-piece puzzle? And is the trillion-dollar market really helping us get well? Or is it actually doing more harm than good?
The Return to Basics
Wellness is more enticing when it’s shrouded in glamour: healthy food reminiscent of art, upscale spas fit for royalty, fitness studios featuring state-of-the-art equipment — the list goes on and on. But when the pandemic put many of these luxuries on pause, we were jetted back to a less seductive reality. Now, we find ourselves at a turning point thanks to a renewed appreciation for the fundamentals of wellness.
Perhaps the most digestible example of this phenomenon is, curiously, avocado toast. In February, Dunkin’ introduced its version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s beloved breakfast staple for a mere $2.99 a slice. Fare once synonymous with bougie wellness, its fast-food successor signified a loss of grandeur.
In retrospect, though, avocado toast had very little business cameoing as a wellness spectacle. Rather, it was the epitome of Instagram fodder, a way of telling social media followers, I’m trendy, and I care about my body! In the wake of a global health crisis, though, performative wellness has been replaced with real regimens.
To deal with the temporary loss of Bikram yoga and Swedish massages, people took wellness into their own hands. A daily neighborhood walk, a healthy home-cooked meal and a good night’s sleep took priority over posh treatments and regal rituals. People found solace in a phone call with a loved one and pastimes like bread baking and gardening.
But let’s be honest: This newfound perspective certainly didn’t mark the end of expensive self-care luxuries. The #TreatYourself anthem isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It seems our spending has simply shifted, and these days we’re shelling out cash for personalized goods tailored to meet our unique needs.
To wit: Last year, the U.S. demand for personalized supplements increased 35% to $375 million, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. “People are realizing that their body isn’t like their neighbor’s and that they can’t simply grab the same vitamins off the shelf,” says Persona Nutrition Interim CEO Shawn Bushouse. “They’re also becoming smarter about what they put into their body, which is driving interest in personalized nutrition.”
This reasoning also explains why services like Everlywell’s at-home health tests have been trending. The brand’s chronic disease management and women’s health offerings saw a whopping 300% boost in 2020, proving that even lab testing has gotten a DIY makeover. In short: Despite our desire to get back to the basics of wellness, we won’t renounce spending entirely — especially if it promises a personalized road map to health.
The Digital Revolution
Remember crowded fitness studios? Crammed spin classes? In-your-face instructors? The very thought is unnerving for those of us who have wholeheartedly embraced the digital wellness revolution. When gyms closed, we justified splurging on tech-driven fitness, making room in our homes for Peloton bikes and trying out newer devices like social media darling Mirror, which has seen sales more than double throughout the pandemic (to the tune of $150 million in Q3 2020 alone). Plus plenty of us turned to our screens to get our sweat on. Fitness and wellness booking resource Mindbody saw a 68% increase in users tuning into live-streamed workout sessions compared with pre-pandemic stats.
And innovations transcend our fitness routine. Words like “telehealth” and “telecounseling” have started dominating our vernacular. Virtual healthcare models such as Teladoc and PlushCare allow for more convenient, more affordable and just plain easier access to healthcare. Last year, nearly half of U.S. patients opted for telehealth appointments instead of in-person ones, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Even as the world returns to some semblance of normalcy, the digital revolution rages on, offering ample — not to mention free or low-cost — benefits across all facets of wellness. Virtual appointments, online classes and smartphone apps have made educational resources and support services more accessible for all. And people are putting them to good use.
Consider Yale’s popular online course, The Science of Well-Being. It’s amassed 3.5 million sign-ups and counting since its inception in 2018 — a million of which emerged during the height of the pandemic. Mental health apps like Calm, Headspace and Meditopia jumped 24%, surging by two million more downloads than expected in April 2020. And Exhale, a first-of-its-kind emotional well-being app designed by and for BIWOC, paves the way for people of color to access specially tailored resources.
As the stats show, wellness and technology have become irrevocably intertwined, and only time will tell if we’re willing to go back to our IRL ways. But as industry-altering innovations move beyond the Zoom era, companies will need to be uber strategic to win over our time, attention and dollars. Having spent so much of the past 18 months engrossed in our devices, we need something unlike what we’ve seen before.
The Trend Report
Wellness sells — and it’s not cheap. When CBD stormed onto the scene, it became an industry mainstay, valued at $2.8 billion in 2020. Now, it’s everywhere. There are cannabidiol-infused gummies, moisturizers, bath bombs — you name it. Hell, even Martha Stewart has jumped on the bandwagon with her own line (Canopy, if you’re so inclined).
This highlights the fact that we’re desperate for anything that might make our lives more livable. Amid an unprecedented health crisis, the wellness sector’s rumored benefits permeated the public consciousness. Google searches for “self-care” reached an all-time high last May. And the slew of trends that followed will define the times: gallon-sized water bottles, fancy air purifiers, jade facial rollers, stress-relief gummies and mushroom-based everything.
But not every craze sticks or ages well. Remember, for instance, the teatoxes and appetite suppressant lollipops that dominated social media in 2018? Other trends like plant-based eating and microbiome skincare — sectors rich with research and interest — have earned more permanent places in the market.
One of the buzziest products of the moment is Sakara’s Detox Water Drops chlorophyll supplement. In May, sales doubled overnight. The reason? TikTok. People took to the social media platform in droves to rave about the product’s supposed do-it-all benefits: weight loss, clearer skin, improved digestion and the like. At the time of writing, it’s unavailable yet again, with only an option to sign up for the waitlist.
“Whether forever or flash in the pan, there’s no denying the immense power of wellness trends — and the big bucks they bring in.”
Another trend earning global attention? Wellness tourism — think yoga retreats, boot camps, staycations and other trips promoting healthy lifestyles. In fact, this sector is growing faster than standard tourism, according to the Global Wellness Institute.
Devil’s advocates argue that habits adopted while on vacation aren’t sustainable. But Forbes wellness writer Noma Nazish disagrees: “A brief stay at a wellness retreat may not be a miracle cure, but it’s a great way to break away from the daily grind and focus on your physical, mental and emotional needs that often get put on the back burner,” she explains. “This can leave you feeling motivated to cultivate those healthy habits even when you return home.”
Whether forever or flash in the pan, there’s no denying the immense power of wellness trends — and the big bucks they bring in. That profit is only increasing, no matter the length of a fad’s lifespan.
The Accountability Factor
We’ve seen the claims: Detox your body. Reduce your anxiety. Boost your immune system. Countless goods promise quick fixes. But investing in unproven products is a gamble. The road to getting well is woefully riddled with deception, yet the wellness industry is profiting all the same.
The demand for accountability is alarmingly dire, and — without getting overly political here — the problem starts at the top. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission are tasked with ensuring products are safe and live up to their claims. Unfortunately, these agencies’ regulatory power is stymied by red tape. The result? All too often, products with questionable claims and ingredients still end up on the marketplace — and, in turn, in thousands of virtual shopping carts.
Take, for example, Gwyneth Paltrow’s multimillion-dollar empire, Goop. Perhaps the most notable — and controversial — wellness brand of our time, it’s no stranger to false advertising lawsuits. In 2018, the company paid out $145,000 for unfounded claims that its vaginal jade eggs could restore hormonal balance and regulate menstrual cycles. Despite this, Goop has sold thousands of them and they’re still available for purchase today (minus the jargon that got the brand in hot water).
Mystery piques curiosity, even in the case of vaginal jade eggs. It’s one reason wellness wares sell without strict regulations, which is part of the problem. “The more simple human needs are being complicated by the health and wellness sector, the more people are getting confused and looking for answers in the wrong places,” says Global Wellness Day founder Belgin Aksoy.
This is tragically true for those living with chronic diseases or mental or physical disabilities. Not only are their actual needs regularly ignored by the industry, but they’re also often victims of marketing ploys. Brands sell them false promises under the guise of sound advice — “Have you tried a gluten-free diet? Pilates? Celery juice?” — which is not only deceitful but verges on dangerous.
Accountability goes far beyond the need for safe ingredients and regulated claims. Not only do we deserve transparency, we also deserve to feel fully represented. As we’ve seen over the past 18 months, the wellness industry has a diversity and inclusion problem. And these days, action is essential to earn our trust; black squares on Instagram and empty promises to do better won’t cut it.
To that end, UOMA Beauty’s Sharon Chuter last summer launched the #PullUpOrShutUp campaign to pressure beauty and wellness companies to release data about the number of people of color on staff. Today, the Instagram account @PullUpForChange remains active, sharing updates about brands’ progress.
Alas, there remains a lot of work to be done. But we, the consumers, have the power to hold companies accountable. It’s time to educate ourselves and move forward, looking out for one another along the way.
The Influencer Effect
Influencer! Educator! Ambassador! What even constitutes a wellness expert these days? As we sit at the cusp of a social media–induced advertising revolution, it seems anyone with a smartphone has a soapbox and a built-in following.
So who can we really trust? Finding a reliable authority isn’t as cut-and-dried as it may seem on TikTok. Mindbody Senior Vice President Regina Wallace-Jones defines a wellness expert as someone who has achieved the requisite training or certifications to engage on the topics they’re educating on, combined with an audience that can attest to their impact. Seems like a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, the impetus to separate fact from fiction lies on us. For example: Is the individual promoting intermittent fasting a licensed nutritionist? Is the influencer touting two-a-day workouts a certified trainer? Or are they masquerading as authorities?
Few of us have the time or the desire to study credentials, plus engaging content and sky-high follower counts can be entrancing. But then there are experts like Deepika Chopra (no relation to Deepak), a rare breed coupling extensive expertise with a strong social presence. Nicknamed the “optimism doctor,” the professional psychologist is a proponent of fusing holistic wellness with evidence-based science.
“I appreciate the value that so many social media–based wellness ‘experts’ give their community,” she explains. “There are instances where this is helpful, but there are also instances where this can go in the opposite direction. For my own practice, I firmly believe that my formal training and supervised clinical and practical work created a really necessary foundation in order for me to offer my services and expertise in the way I do now.”
Some skeptics are turned off by the term “wellness expert” entirely because of its ambiguity. Others point out that all social media content should be taken with a grain of salt. What’s certain is that alluring influencers and actual experts are unfortunately intermixed — and that it’s up to us to tell the difference.
The Anti-Wellness Movement
“Your bad habits can kill you, but your good habits won’t save you,” cultural critic Fran Lebowitz opines in her Netflix docuseries Pretend It’s a City. Touché, Fran. This is essentially the elevator pitch for the anti-wellness movement (of which she’s a part): You don’t have to buy into the market to be the best version of yourself.
Anti-wellness supporters ask, When you remove the money, products and healthism hoopla from the equation, what are you left with? They propose that living well doesn’t necessitate buying items stamped with the word “wellness.”
That said, being anti-wellness isn’t as dramatic as it sounds. Nor is it as extreme as never purchasing essential oils or weighted blankets again. Rather, advocates remain unseduced by clever marketing schemes and are pushing for a wellness revolution.
The movement may be quiet, but it’s gaining momentum. Podcasts, documentaries and social media accounts have cropped up to alert the public of the industry’s shortcomings — and its potential dangers. Among them is Chronic By HuffPost, a podcast focused on what wellness means for the chronically unwell. It’s hosted by HuffPost UK editor Lucy Pasha-Robinson, who herself battled endometriosis and asserts that “wellness culture is ableism in sheep’s clothing.”
She’s one of the many challenging the industry to move away from its ableist messaging: Cure your depression! Get rid of inflammation! Cleanse your way to better health! This kind of language implies that living well and living with chronic illness, which affects some 133 million Americans, are mutually exclusive.
And who’s to say what makes you feel good? Consider the recent rage room phenomenon. At places like the Break Bar and Just Smash It, you can bust old televisions and ceramic dishes to your heart’s desire. Although it may seem like the antithesis of a meditative yoga session, it’s therapeutic to some.
All things considered, these anti-wellness supporters just might be onto something in their quest for a wellness revolution. After all, it sure is ironic that we as a nation are so obsessed with wellness, yet we’re famously unwell.
The Final Verdict
So you want to get well. Now what? Let’s pretend for a moment that the trillion-dollar wellness market doesn’t exist. Gone are the fancy elixirs, the cure-all creams and the state-of-the-art devices that are raking in unbelievable profits.
Yes, the industry is ripe with innovative goods that claim to support our well-being. But its overwhelmingly commercial nature can be blinding. In the face of global suffering, the importance of self-care is more pronounced than ever before. And it’s ultimately up to us to determine what caring for ourselves looks like.
As you begin (or reorient) your wellness journey, consider Global Wellness Day founder Belgin Aksoy’s advice: “It’s time we remember what we already know.” As a refresher, wellness spans physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and environmental realms. Do your best to nurture these facets — with or without stuff — and you’re well on your way to becoming definitively well.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Products, services and misinformation cloud the industry with a thick haze. And gosh, is it all tempting. Enhancing your smoothie with energy-boosting herbs or luxuriating in a gold-infused face mask may seem like quicker fixes than making time for daily meditation, optimizing your sleep hygiene or taking that much-needed PTO day. But it’s important to recognize that you have the tools you need within you (and not your wallet).
“You can purchase all the pricey memberships, but in the end, the most important thing you can invest in is yourself.”
Take Michelle Obama, for example. For her, nurturing her well-being means learning to navigate life’s highs and the lows. “Over the course of your adulthood, you develop your own tools,” she said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this year. “I’m trying to get [my daughters] and other young people to start thinking about, What are your tools? The things that bring you joy, the things that bring you calm and peace. I know those things for myself now, but it’s taken decades to develop those tools.”
And that looks different for each of us. From free self-guided practices like journaling and breathwork to vetted expert-provided services like therapy and bodywork, you get to curate the wellness toolbox that meets your individual needs. And if that self-care regimen includes a favorite indulgence, so be it. As certified holistic health coach Jeannine Morris Lombardi aptly puts it, “You can purchase all the pricey memberships, but in the end, the most important thing you can invest in is yourself.”
So to buy in or not to buy in? Sorry, but that answer is entirely up to you. What’s certain, though, is that there’s undeniable value in putting yourself first. It’s perhaps the greatest (and simplest) takeaway to come out of these trying times. And it’s a sentiment that will ring true until the end of time — well beyond the lifespan of that hot new wellness trend.
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.