Consumers can have a huge impact on modern slavery. By being aware of the dynamics in supply chains and consciously trying to be an ethical consumer, you can avoid contributing to modern slavery, and help force corporations and businesses to take steps to ensure integrity and transparency in their supply chains.

The American Psychological Association describes ethical consumerism as “the purchase and consumption of goods and services in accordance with one’s social or moral beliefs.”

Recently, ethical consumerism has become substantially more widespread, particularly with young people. As a consumer you have buying power. Corporations need to satisfy consumers in order to make profit and continue functioning as a business. When the consumers one and only priority is low prices, corporations tends to sacrifice the integrity of their supply chains in order to supply products at these prices.

If, consumers demand transparent and ethical supply chains, free from exploitation and slavery, this puts pressure on corporations to take steps to improve the integrity of their supply chains so that they can satisfy their customers. These dynamics exist in nearly all supply chains in any industry, whether that is retail, food, household items or pharmaceuticals. The power of a consumer is enormous and the impact that a combined movement from consumers can have is profound.

There are some very easy and minor changes that young people can make to substantially impact the modern slavery on a global level. Educate yourself about slavery in supply chains and be aware of the issues and dynamics that are involved. Figure out how to be an ethical consumer, using practical tools such as mobile apps. Being an ethical consumer is important, not only for reducing slavery in supply chains, but also for helping the environment, reducing inequality and creating sustainable economic growth around the world.

Typically, by the time a product is purchased by a consumer it has passed through many hands, including producers of the raw materials, manufacturers, brokers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. All of these companies and the people they employ are linked together in the ultimate supply of the product and are participants in what is known as the ‘supply chain’.

Tracing the actual supply chain of a product or service can prove difficult, particularly in certain industries. For example, if you were to map a supply chain of coffee, you would often end up with a complex web of sellers and resellers where contributions to the final product might come from numerous suppliers.

This can make the identification of potential human trafficking and slave labour in the supply chain hard to detect.

Cotton Harvesting in Uzbekistan

One instance of forced labour in supply chains is within the cotton industry in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s leadings exporters of cotton and the cotton industry is a central economic activity for the nation. The Association of Human Rights in Central Asia in a 2010 report provided that each year schools in Uzbekistan close for up to 2 and a half months for the cotton harvest. In 2010 it was reported that more than 20 million children were exploited for the purposes of harvesting cotton over these school closure periods. The International Labour Organization reports that forced child labour in Uzbekistan has been reducing dramatically since global attention was brought to the systematic use of child labour in the harvest of cotton. However, this case demonstrates the issue of modern slavery in supply chains. Cotton harvesting is an initial stage that of the process whereby an item of clothing available for purchase in Australia is produced.  When you buy an item of clothing, manufacturing location will ordinarily be provided. Someone who buys a top that was ‘made in Australia’ may believe that they can be certain that no slavery was involved in the production of the top. However, this is not the case. The manufacturing of goods that are sold in Australia and elsewhere in the world, involve countless preliminary stages before they are ‘assembled’ in the final form that they are purchased. The manufacturing company must source materials and workers to manufacture there products. Manufacturers rarely source materials in order to manufacture the relevant product. A manufacturer of cotton goods in Australia for instance, would not source their cotton directly from the individuals harvesting it in Uzbekistan or elsewhere. Rather they source these materials from a middle man such as a wholesaler. Often, a supply chain will be very long, so that not only does the manufacturer source material from a wholesaler, but the wholesaler sources their material from a variety of other smaller wholesalers, who may source their material from various regional traders, who source their material from various local traders of the material, and so on. The supply chain for the production of a t-shirt you might buy at a shop of Australia is more likely to be a complex web. It therefore becomes very difficult to determine whether slavery has occurred at any point in a given supply chain, especially where manufacturers and businesses lack transparency in their processes or do not act responsibly in sourcing their materials. To learn more about the practice of forced and child labour in the Uzbek cotton fields visit the International Labour Organization website.

Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In the past few years child labour, slavery and exploitation has been uncovered in the cobalt mining industry of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 2019, the DRC produced 70% of global mined cobalt. Low wages, weak rule of law and widespread government corruption allows severe exploitation to occur in the cobalt mining industry, an industry that is becoming increasingly more profitable and in demand. The complexity of the supply chain of cobalt is often very elaborate, starting with mining in the DRC, and ending with copper parts in mobile phones around the world. In 2016 an Amnesty International report highlighted serious human rights issues occurring in the cobalt supply chain, including child labour. Children as young as 7 have been reported mining cobalt in the DCR. The implications of the cobalt trade in the DCR are very severe. Research from the universities of Lubumbashi, Leuven and Ghent, has revealed that cobalt mining is likely causing birth defects in children. This is therefore a critical instance of slavery in supply chains that demonstrates the importance of ensuring appropriate supply chain management from businesses and ethical purchasing from consumers. Read more about this alarming research on the lasting harm from cobalt mining on the Amnesty International website.

How can you be an ethical consumer and avoid slavery in supply chains?

By thinking about the dynamics of supply chains before you make a purchase you can make sure that you are not contributing to the ongoing forms of modern slavery that occur in supply chains of many different types. You can research a company and seek what their position on the matter is. Corporations will generally have some sort of modern slavery statement available on their website. Have a look at the Woolworths Group Modern Slavery Statement 2020 as an example. Alternatively there are a number of useful tools and indexes that can help you determine the company’s position and reputation on slavery in supply chains. Check out these online resources and tools that can help you learn more and become an ethical consumer:

Generally reducing the amount you purchase (particularly clothing) as well as purchasing pre-owned goods can also help reduce the prevalence of modern slavery in supply chains.

Learn more and access further online resources.