Slavery - Not for Sale feature
Slavery: A 21st Century Evil

Your purchase is your advocacy

‘I do not want to consume their suffering with my morning cup of coffee.’

It is not easy mobilising an army of citizens that will put an end to modern slavery. The mass of people find it hard to believe that slavery still exists in the 21st century. The fact that tens of millions of individuals around the globe daily live in real forms of bondage contradicts our sense of modern history and moral progress. Such ignorance nurtures passivity.

Remarkably, once individuals do become aware of the reality of slavery, a new form of inactivity typically kicks in: paralysis. The crisis is so global, and so complex, what can one person really do about it?

The answer is actually quite simple: confront your own link to the problem. 

Admittedly, most of us are quite removed from the supply side of slavery. We do not seek out vulnerable human beings and turn them into a commercial commodity.

Yet nearly all of us do have a personal link to the demand side of modern slavery. 

I first started investigating slavery after I learned that one of my favourite restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area was trafficking teenagers from India, forcing them to work in food service and then shipping them out for exploitation in construction crews, agriculture fields and brothels.  

After I learned the truth that slavery reaches from across the globe to my own backyard, I travelled to every continent in order to understand the mechanics of the trade. It was troubling to learn that slave labour polluted the production process of products I buy and consume on a regular basis: shoes, shirts, cars and the tyres that move them, chocolate and umpteen other products that surround my life.

Granted, not everyone has the opportunity to conduct one’s own global investigation. So my agency, Not For Sale, undertook the task of creating a consumer tool that provides data and transparency to the supply chains of products that sit on the shelves of retail stores we frequent. We call the tool Free2Work; after all, we should all work freely.

Free2Work assigns a product a grade – A to F – based on the tangible steps that a company has taken to demonstrate that it has zero tolerance for forced labour in its supply chain. The 50 factors that go into evaluating that grade encompass protocols that pertain to transparency in a supply chain, a solid code of conduct, monitoring its implementation, and remediation when violations do occur.

The Free2Work tool can be downloaded as an app on the Android and iPhone. Walk into a store and scan the price tag and you can learn the story behind its bar code.

Wearing people’s tragedy

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Every product has a story. And I know that I am not the only person who does not want to wear people’s tragedy. I do not want to trample on their dreams with the shoes that I buy. I do not want to consume their suffering with my morning cup of coffee. I would hope that everyone who touches a product that I buy had their lives enhanced by their participation in its production.

My consumer purchase therefore may be my most powerful act of advocacy against slavery. When a million consumers start shopping with their conscience, they shift the economics of the market.

After all, supply chains do not follow immutable laws of production. They operate as “value” chains, because economic value is assigned to those factors that the market rewards. At the moment, the human story gets lost in complex international supply chains, and hence gets assigned minimal economic value.

A recent conversation with the executive of a major global apparel manufacturer exemplifies this not so benign neglect. The executive relates that he had travelled from his US headquarters to investigate a violation of his company’s supplier code of conduct involving forced labour at a factory in India. Via its own monitoring channels, his team had discovered that the factory was using subcontractors for piecework, and those workshops often disregarded basic human rights protocol.

The executive did not inform the factory manager of the true intent of his visit, so the local Indian manager could only assume that purchase orders and finances would be the principal agenda of their meeting.

“What do you pay for cotton?” The executive’s first query only served to confirm the factory manager’s commercial frame of reference. Without wasting a breath, the manager delivered an exact price. 

“And how does the production cost vary for each item that you make for us?” Once again, the manager showed his proficiency in knowing down to the cent the cost of production for each item, as well as their average time of production.

At that point, the executive unexpectedly changed tact. “Okay, tell me the names of the top two subcontractors you use when you ship the items out for embroidery.” After an awkward pause, the manager confessed that he had no clue. 

“So you can rattle off the tip of your tongue the efficiency and costs of your production, but you remain ignorant [as to] how that process impacts people?”

An army of conscious consumers

Every successful business manager readily identifies those factors that are critical to yield a maximum profit.  In most global supply chains, the cost of goods is king. The fair treatment and compensation of human beings, on the other hand, is a variable cost that can be considered an enemy of the king.

A mobilised army of conscious consumers alters the demand side toward which supply chains bend. When we make human dignity a key factor in our shopping decisions, we assign it an economic value. Companies that ignore or blatantly disregard human dignity will lose business. 

That factory owner in India – or wherever else in the world a consumer product is made – will respond to those factors that get measured and rewarded. He knows the exact price of cotton because it impacts his profitability. Values-driven consumers can make the dignity of human beings a factor that every producer must keep at the front of their mind.

Dr David Batstone is a professor at the School of Management at the University of San Francisco and the co-founder and president of Not For Sale.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.