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Ethical Consumerism

The Christmas season brings heartwarming demonstrations of generosity, hospitality, and community. Yet, it also highlights the sad, seeming inextricable link between consumerism and forced labor, between holiday shopping and global exploitation. 

Most consumers remain isolated from the source of their gifts and commodities, that is, from the people who sewed their clothes, harvested their food, or packaged their goods. 

Unfortunately, forced labor creates many of the basics and luxuries we take for granted. 

For instance, recent attention on forced labor in the Chinese Xinjiang Province reveals government coercion of the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities to work in factories and cotton fields. Hardly an isolated incident, an increasing number of common household brands producing electronics, cars, food, and clothing have been linked with forced labor. 

A form of human trafficking, forced labor occurs when actors – such as employers, government, or individuals – extract labor or services through force, fraud, or coercion. Victims may be lured by promises of a job, have their documentation seized, be bonded by debt to work for inhumane wages, or may be threatened with violence to prevent them from leaving. 

The exploitation of children in supply chains is particularly troubling. 

Approximately 160 million children worldwide – or one in 10 children – work in hazardous conditions, disrupting their schooling, health, safety, and basic human rights. According to UNICEF, child labor has been reported in agricultural, textile, electronic, and building industries.

So what can you do?

  • Promote education and enhanced services. Continuous educational initiatives that highlight exploitation within supply chains can spark change. Further, addressing underlying vulnerabilities to trafficking requires investing in proven services for children and their families. This includes strong collaborations between companies, governments, academia and civil society to better understand forced labor, test interventions, and advocate for policy and industry changes. 
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Demand for excessive goods perpetuates exploitation of vulnerable populations. Reconsider whether you truly need something. If possible, buy less and opt for items that are used, locally sourced, produced by companies with ethical labor standards, or even made by trafficking survivors. And rather than throwing away items, consider creative ways to update, upgrade, and alter old or damaged items. Recycle items through donations (including anti-trafficking centers and homes) and exchanges with friends and family, and utilized online retailers of used products such as Threadup, Poshmark, and Depop.
  • Research. Visit company websites to learn more about their sourcing and labor standards. Look for product certifications, such as Fairtrade and B Corporation certifications. Many organizations, such as Know the Chain and the Bureau of International Labor Affairs provide information on problematic companies and practices. 
  • Speak out. Express to brands and lawmakers that ethical labor and accountable supply chain matters to you. Encourage your networks to reduce their consumption and make socially responsible investments. Become active in your own community by hosting a fashion swap or working with local stores to sell ethically-made products.

Many interlocking strategies are needed to dismantle the exploitative supply chain network. Yet we can all take simple steps today. With every conscientious purchase, we can practically uphold the dignity of workers across the globe.

Shopping Guides:

The Exodus Road: Gifts, Businesses, and Brands that Fight Human Trafficking

The Honest Consumer: Ethical and Sustainable Clothing Brands 

Fair Trade Certified: Shop Certified Products


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