I recently found out that I am responsible for 52 slaves. With a son named Lincoln, that seems like something I should fix, given the other Lincoln’s involvement in slavery.
You can take a test, and based on what you say (lifestyle, consumption patterns, buying choices) it well tell you your slavery footprint; the average number of slaves that support your lifestyle. It turns out that if I make average buying choices then there is one slave for every week of the year beavering away to support my lifestyle. Not that I keep them all locked up in the same spot mind; I share their bonded-ness with most of you.
Wait, I don’t have that many Slaves
Now, I’m a bit of conscientious objector (which probably just means I don’t like taking responsibility for the fact that I’m complicit in someone else’s pain) and so I do what I can to:
- Follow the Frog or
- buy Fair Trade
- buy sustainably sourced cotton
- investigate the sustainability of tech that I buy (thanks to
Forum for the Future‘sO2’s Eco Rating system)
- buy Marks and Spencer’s Sustainability Suit*.
So while I can explain away some of the slavery by being informed and making deliberate choices (thereby reducing the number to maybe 26 slaves), I certainly can’t explain it all away. Not least of which because I don’t really have the resources to look into the supply chains of every product I buy. And besides, mostly suppliers aren’t able to tell you themselves how extensive their use of slavery is. I barely even knew Uzbekistan was a country, let alone that child slavery is rife in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.
What, you mean Slaves?
Let’s be clear.
I’m not talking about the ‘slaves’ that work in factories to support my technology habit, who get paid less for one days work that I earn while on my lunch break (although that slightly bothers me too), I mean actual slaves.
Locked in rooms. Chained up. Can’t leave the factory/plantation/cave. Beaten once-a-day-whether-they-need-it-or-not type slaves.
The Guardian has a pretty good guide to Modern Slavery.
The Slavery I benefit from (indirectly)
Most of my slavery comes from my clothing (particularly my underwear – sorry) and products for my 7 month old son, Lincoln, which is probably the most disappointing thing. I find myself wanting to be not responsible for this cold fact, but the reality is that I am benefitting from slavery all to try to give Lincoln a good start in life.
As it happens, almost all the clothing for my boy has been handed down from others, and so I want to feel like I’m not responsible, or at least be able to have some sort of further discount on the number of slaves I use. While it does mean that I am not responsible for this year’s slavery, I am certainly the beneficiary of last year’s slave trade. And the Baby Wipes and diapers that I use (even though they are mostly Real Nappies) are serious culprits. Body wash is apparently also really bad. Soap it is then.
And if recent media stories are to be believed (they probably are – it’s probably worse than even the Guardian might wish us to believe) then it’s happening right under our noses, even right here in the UK. According to Fraser Nelson, late last year the free-range eggs from Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, McDonalds and M&S were produced by chickens that were free (YAAAAYYY), but allegedly tainted by bonded labour from Lithuania which was not (free) (BOOOOOOOO).
The Kent Police seem to think so too because they have charged several people under the wickedly name Gangmaster Act (nothing to do with keeping Gangnam Style under control) and a few other things besides. Fraser thinks it’s a far bigger issue for companies than a bit of horse meat in cheap burgers. He’s probably right. And no doubt there needs to be a certain amount of revision of public policy and awareness at government level, but business needs to be involved in finding solutions to this, one of the oldest of human problems.
Complicity or Complacency?
If I want to, I can explain away my complicity in human trafficking and slavery. It seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that the balance of economic power isn’t in my favour (if McDonalds doesn’t know about it, what hope have I got), that I don’t have time to pursue every issue or indeed that I simply can’t be expected to know everything about all the goods that I buy. All of which are, in a fashion, correct. But can I really excuse myself that easily?
It makes me wonder if I am right to be concerned with Corporate Social Responsibility. Perhaps I should think a lot more about PSR – Personal Social Responsibility. But that is dichotomising those things in a way that wont lead to useful solutions and the sort of collaboration that will solve this issue. Ultimately, only through a combination of government action, corporate vigilance and consumer interest can we get rid of slavery.
Nike, you should know better
Possibly the favourite company to hate on this agenda (at least if you are an angry-campaigner-type) is surely Nike, which has been stung by slavery before thanks to Michael Moore. Nike once again finds itself at the centre of a slavery storm, this time the Uzbek slave storm. In some ways that’s a bit unfair on Nike, given it is at least two links away from the suppliers using slavery, but they of all manufacturers in the list of companies targeted by the campaign know how much a supply chain can really sting! Especially when other clothes manufacturers H&M, C&A, and Michael Kors have agreed to stop buying from Daewoo and to implement the strangely named Daewoo protocol.
It’s a big ask to put the burden on companies to know what’s going on in the supply chain. But I don’t think it is an insurmountable one.
What’s the G4 got to do with Slavery?
If we want to avoid slavery, then GRI G4-level disclosure of supply chain issues (at least as it exists in draft form) seems to give companies far reaching obligations in their supply chains in relation to human rights and many labour issues. That seems to me to be a pretty efficient way to go about it. It’s not really in anyone’s interest to incur cost if it doesn’t do anything, but if we are going to do something it’s certainly more economically efficient to have companies at the top of the supply chain investigating those issue than it is for consumers to do it. It may be more efficient again for companies to outsource it to a trusted independent overseer (perhaps like the Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance models), but that’s something that companies would need to be part of and competition may prove very useful in that context.
Let me be clear, the G4 will cause some companies some pain, and as a process it needs to ensure that it isn’t incurring costs for no good purpose, but the pain and additional cost to companies is one factor in the debate about the efficacy of the GRI in meeting those purpose driven goals. It wont solve slavery per se either, but the sort of habitual investigation of supply chains that the G4 will encourage will mean that those of us who care about eradicating slavery will be more able to do so, and as a goal for personal and corporate social responsibility, that seems a good one. After all, if we only looked at corporate compliance cost, then we would probably not have even got through the first iteration of the GRI and no-one is seriously calling for that to be scrapped.
I think it was William Wilberforce who said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” I may wish I didn’t know, but I most certainly do and increasingly, so do companies.
It seems that slavery is one of those things that we need to always be vigilant about.
Plan of action
My brash piece of advice is to tweet this post, or at least tweet about your slavery footprint. I’ll also give one pound to Not For Sale for each of the first 500 who subscribe to this blog through the rest of April and into May. If you get past that piece of brashness, then try these as next steps:
- get signed up to a website like this one – Free the Slaves
- or this one – Stop the Traffik
- or this one – Stop Slavery
- or this one – Not For Sale
- or this one – Made in a Free World
- calculate your slavery footprint and do some social media thing with it
- find a way to mitigate one of your biggest impacts as identified in your footprint by buying an alternative product or by finding out how extensively one of your favourite brands reports on its supply chain
- download any one of dozens of apps that help with the process od identifying who is OK to buy from: Good Guide (Android and iPhone), Free World (Android and iPhone)
For the Inter-generationalists among us
For those who want to go way back with their slavery, back beyond my boy’s handed-down clothes, the University College London has done some impressive work in tracing the beneficiaries of slave compensation, from the time when England made slavery illegal. That’s right – they paid slave owners compensation for their economic losses in relation to having to relinquish their ownership of humans.
* Oh that us sustainability types could walk around in superhero lycra – no, this is an organic wool suit that has recycled plastic materials in the lining. I own one, and love to strut and tell sustainability stories while I do, but my favourite story about the suit is:
A friend walked into an M&S, and like me, wanted to self-righteously buy the new sustainability suit. He asked the shop assistant if they had one, and after looking for several minutes, and explaining that she had heard the CEO talk about it the week before, and how impressed she was by the story, she was sure that they had one.
After looking for a few more minutes, she gave up, and called across the shop floor, at almost the top of her voice, to one of her colleagues, “Hey, do you know where we keep those Invincibility Suits?”