During a time in which a small percentage of our population is finally starting to truly acknowledge and take action against the injustices of modern day slavery, we were inspired to speak with two experts on the subject. Corban Addison, international best-selling author, and Richard Schechter, Grace Farms Foundation’s Senior Justice Advisor and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, provided insight into the barriers we have yet to overcome and how we can help the trajectory of our global community to finally make progress in the battle against modern day slavery.
What is the greatest barrier to eradicating modern day slavery and how do we overcome it?
Corban Addison | International Bestselling Author
Years ago, I would have said that the greatest barrier to winning the war against modern slavery was ignorance—the simple fact that not enough people in the world know enough about what is happening behind the scenes in the economy to generate the momentum necessary to transform that economy from exploitative to fair. But now I’m not so sure.
Ignorance is a massive problem, but I think some of that blindness is chosen. People don’t want to know because with knowledge comes responsibility—the moral imperative to act in an ethical way. Yet all of us benefit immensely from slavery. It’s why so many of the things we love to buy and wear are so cheap. And we love cheap. Who wants to pay more for our clothes or the food we buy, or the chocolate we indulge in, or the toys we give to our kids? As a society, we just don’t want to pay the cost associated with genuinely dignifying human beings. We have laws that keep the exploitation far away, not just in other zip codes but in other countries, and we do our best not to think about where things come from when we buy them. Our favorite brands are happy to keep us in the dark, and we’re happy to stay there. It’s just too difficult to imagine what we would do if we actually knew—or rather fully acknowledged—the truth.
Ironically, this was the very same reason that America struggled for so long to confront the problem of African slavery. Thomas Jefferson was an avowed abolitionist—of a certain stripe, at least. He wrote that slavery was an abomination. At his memorial in D.C., these words are etched on a marble wall: Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Yet he owned slaves all his life, had children with one of them, and didn’t free Sally in his will, though he did emancipate a few members of her family.
Unlike in our times, the ugliness of historical slavery was not hidden by an illusion; it was in plain sight. Jefferson knew the fullness of the truth. He saw it every day of his life. And he had a moral compass. He knew what needed to be done. But he was unwilling to do it because of what it would have cost him. I can empathize. Abolishing chattel slavery would have overturned his entire way of life. So he turned away and lived in the conflict. I don’t think he was ever comfortable with the tension, but he accepted it. I think a lot of people in the world today would do the same, even if they were confronted with the fact that the products and brands they love are tarnished by forced labor and slavery. They’d distance themselves from it and accept the compromise.
Thankfully, that isn’t true of everyone, and, in particular, I don’t think it’s true of most young people. That’s why Unchain (read more about our collaborative global campaign here) has such potential. This vision to develop comprehensive strategies and partnerships to disrupt and combat human trafficking and gender-based violence really resonates with Generation Break, the under 40 crowd. Young people, by and large, aren’t afraid to think about a radically different world. They’re not afraid to change it because they don’t yet have so much invested in the status quo; they don’t yet have too much to lose. For the Unchain demographic, the greatest problem is ignorance. For the rest of us, the challenge is deeper. Will we pay the price?
Rich Schechter | Grace Farms Foundation Senior Justice Advisor and Former Assistant U.S. Attorney
Societies who want to eradicate modern day slavery need to be willing to publicly brand all products that have been produced with some form of slave labor. As an example, the FDA was created to make food and drugs safer in our country. If a product was not FDA approved, it could not be labeled as such, and in some cases wasn’t even sold. Labeling products with fair labor supply chains would have a similar impact.
If we want to get serious about preventing companies from exploiting labor conditions, we need to create a process for placing a seal of approval on all clean supply chain products. If a company wants to sell it in the U.S., it has to receive a labor seal of approval. If the company does not have a seal of approval, it should either be prohibited from selling its products, or forced to label those products to show its exploitative practices. While this alone is not going to eradicate forced labor, it would make it harder to ignore.
Think cigarettes: After the U.S. got serious about warning people that cigarettes are dangerous, they put a label on every package indicating the contents were hazardous to your health. While this did not eliminate smoking, it sure made it impossible to overlook. Additionally, if supply chain auditing was put into place, the U.S. would have the information it needed to tax the products of companies without clean supply chains. All of this would force companies to improve their supply chains, and would lessen the economic motivation to exploit labor in order to create a cheaper product. As we get more technologically savvy it is easier to create processes to audit these supply chains. Regulation is cumbersome, but it’s much easier now than it once was.
What steps can those who aren’t directly connected to the movement take in their day-to-day lives to create progress?
We can educate ourselves about the facts of modern day slavery, the ways in which our everyday lives are affected by forced labor, and change our shopping and consumption habits to reflect our newfound awareness. We need to start asking ourselves questions before we buy products: Where did this item come from? Does this brand care about ethical sourcing? How is it possible that this item can be so cheap without exploiting workers and the environment? We need to start looking for the ethical brands and companies and supporting them. We need to talk to our kids about this, so it’s in their DNA as consumers. And we need to be willing to walk away from brands and items we love if we learn they’re shady in their sourcing practices. We need to face the facts and vote with our pocket books.
People need to insist, through their actions, that companies with clean supply chains have products branded as such. But this is a lot to expect—we live in a busy, fast-moving society, and it’s unrealistic for individuals to do this research on their own, especially at the point of sale.
However, the scenario I propose above is not unattainable. The precedent is here. Plenty of branding processes have already been put in place to help consumers make better decisions while shopping: organic labels, sugar-free labels, gluten free labels, FDA approved labels, ingredients listed on the packaging. These forms of branding are all commonplace today. If we can provide consumers with this type of information, why can’t we also notify them when they are about to buy goods produced with exploited labor? If this becomes a branding situation in which we can clearly see whether or not a product has been produced with a clean supply chain, we can empower them to, as Corban says, “vote with their pocketbooks.”
Everyone can be participants in making this leap. The internet has plenty of information on which brands have clean supply chains. Plan your errands a little differently to patronize those brands. And don’t underestimate the power of your voice. Like any movement, this one will start at the level of the individual and progress from there to create big change. Once you’re aware of which companies have a reputation for exploiting labor, be vocal. Spread that information—through the internet, conversations with friends and family, etc. When a name gets into the public consciousness as exploitative, it’s hard to erase. It spreads like wildfire. We’ve seen this recently with the #metoo movement.
Consumers can even show companies they are willing to pay more for clean products, and influence the brands by helping them create a clear return on investment for their efforts. This trend can continue to the point that it will encourage companies to produce and market differently. The price companies pay for being taxed for their exploitative labor, and for losing patrons as a result of it, will force them to clean up their supply chains. The more the consumer demands these new branding features, the more likely they will become the norm. This is how I see individuals really having a place in the movement.