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Consumers can’t stop slavery – or can they?

by David Westlake | International Justice Mission
Thursday, 18 October 2018 09:30 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Know your stuff and vote with your wallet: ethical brands do exist

David Westlake is the CEO of International Justice Mission UK.

Modern slavery is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, quite literally. The clothes we wear, the coffee we drink, the smartphones we talk on.

Women in slavery are giving birth on dirty floors and being forced to go back to work; children are being starved, sleep deprived and denied healthcare; and men are tricked into back-breaking labour for up to 22 hours a day. At International Justice Mission we’ve helped rescue people who have endured these horrific conditions.

From raw materials to manufacturing, exploitation and slavery is rife in global supply chains. There’s no doubt that this problem is deeply complex - one shirt could include cotton from four different places, so tracing supply chains to check for exploitation is notoriously difficult. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we should give up. Or that there’s nothing consumers can do.

Stopping slavery in supply chains requires a truly global response, from corporates, governments, civil society - and us. Corporates need to be proactive about checking supply chains for signs of exploitation and slave labour, going beyond tick box exercises to truly find out what’s happening throughout their supply chain. They also need to know that when they report suspicious behaviour, something will be done.

Ultimately, ending slavery in supply chains requires global governments and law enforcement to seek out and stamp out the problem by enforcing anti-slavery laws and making sure criminals are held to account. At IJM, we’ve seen slavery decrease by up to 80% when we’ve partnered with law enforcement to make it too risky for slave-owners and traffickers to exploit people.

It might sound like we as consumers are powerless, but, in fact, our role is vital in making this happen:

Know your stuff and vote with your wallet: Ethical brands do exist.  People Tree and Know the Origin are just two brands whose very reason for existence is to prove that it’s possible to produce products without exploitation, there are many more. Buying from brands who are taking proactive steps to tackle slavery means that you’re investing in good practise, which is one step forward.

So how do you know who’s ethical? In the UK, the Modern Slavery Act means that every company with a turnover of more than £36m is required to have a Modern Slavery statement – check it out and see if they’re actively seeking to address slavery in their supply chains. The Australian government is introducing similar legislation. Ethical supply chain expert Charlotte Instone from Know The Origin urges us to look for brands whose statements show transparency, especially those who publish not only which country they are working in but who mention factories by name for genuine accountability. She adds that certifications – whilst not the end goal - do create more accountability and force brands to know and evaluate their supply chains, so look out for Organic and Fairtrade.

Look into whether brands are involved in initiatives to actively combat slavery - like Walmart’s work with International Justice Mission (IJM) to stop tackle slavery in the Thai fishing industry or the M&S partnership with the Ethical Trading Initiative. A resource like the Fashion Transparency Index is also a great way of understanding how leading retailers rank in their efforts to become more ethical. Ethical Consumer evaluates many different companies.

Challenge your favourite brands to do better. From the revolution in plastic to the growth of Fairtrade, consumers power works. Raise your voice and show you care – email, tweet or write to brands and ask them where they make their clothes, products or how they source their food – and what steps they’re taking to avoid slavery. The more brands know that their customers care about their supply chains, the faster they’ll take action.

And don’t stop with brands – keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in politics. What is your government doing to help stop slavery in supply chains? Stay engaged and speak with your local MP, write a letter, get tweeting or attend conferences on slavery in supply chains.

Speak out on social media. Did you know that the mica in your make-up or the cobalt in your phone battery could’ve been mined by a child in slavery? Most people don’t. So share stories and stats on social media so that your friends and family know this problem is real.

And last – but by no means least -  you can be part of sending rescue and putting slave-owners behind bars by supporting organisations like IJM who are on the ground, fighting for freedom.

The problem is large, but as Margaret Mead urged, “we should not doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; it is the only thing that ever has.”