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Not Impossible: Working Together to Make an Impact with our Consumer Choices

In Cambodia, Salay is 13 years old. He works hard in the brick factory to help his family repay a debt to the brick factory owner. He is also an outstanding student. Photo: ©2011 Vichheka Sok/World Vision

In Cambodia, Salay is 13 years old. He works hard in the brick factory to help his family repay a debt to the brick factory owner. He is also an outstanding student.
Photo: ©2011 Vichheka Sok/World Vision

I have 26 slaves working for me. At least that’s what a website is telling me. The website, slaveryfootprint.org doesn’t tell me who picked the cotton of the sweater I wore today; who mined the minerals to make my cellphone; or who picked the grapes that I ate for lunch. I certainly don’t know the conditions they worked in. For the last several weeks, I have been reflecting on this. On April 24th, I, like many Americans, was once again confronted with the uncomfortable reality that my purchases have consequences—both good and bad. After the tragedy in Bangladesh many wondered, “How do my shopping choices impact others? And how can we as consumers influence employers to pay a fair wage, provide safe work conditions, and ensure there is no exploitation or slavery in supply chains?”

In the days and weeks after the tragedy, many asked “what went wrong?” and “how should the fashion industry respond to prevent disaster in the future?” These are important discussions. But in the midst of the shock, anger, and calls for action, one story captured my attention. On May 5th, the New York Times told the story of Shaheena, a 32 year-old, single mother who worked in a factory in the Rana Plaza. She was trapped in the rubble for two days before workers found and launched a 20 hour, ultimately failed, attempt to rescue her. “For women like Shaheena, the garment industry has been a source of empowerment as well as exploitation. Before, few rural women worked outside the fields…Now the industry has given many women a first step out of rural distress, with some becoming outspoken labor leaders or managers in their factories. But more often, a factory job has meant a daily struggle to subsist on low wages consumed by rising rents and living expenses.” Shaheena’s story reminds me that there are no easy answers to these questions. But we also can’t throw up our hands amid feelings of helplessness and declare it impossible to do anything positive. Together we can make an impact through engaging companies, supporting and empowering communities, and making informed decisions with our wallets.

Verité is a Massachusetts based non-profit that works to ensure that people around the world work under safe, fair, and legal conditions. This includes working with companies, like Apple, to assess their supply chains for labor exploitation and slavery and create policies that lead to better conditions for workers. In 2007, Verité convened the International Cocoa Verification Board to ensure that data collected on child labor and forced labor in West Africa’s cocoa industry was independently verified and accurate. This has led to greater cooperation between governments, the cocoa industry, and non-profits to address child labor and forced labor in cocoa production.  Verité also conducts research on forced labor in commodities like shrimp, cotton, fish, and rice. If you’re interested in learning more, you can explore their Forced Labor Commodity Atlas.

Verité, along with World Vision, is a part of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), a diverse coalition of U.S.-based human rights organizations working to end modern-day slavery and human trafficking in the United States and around the world. ATEST works together to advocate for lasting solutions to prevent labor and sex trafficking, hold perpetrators accountable, ensure justice for victims and empower survivors with tools for recovery. The members of ATEST work to combat modern-day slavery domestically and internationally, they work with children, men, and women who are victims of sex and labor trafficking. ATEST member organizations include Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), End Child Prostitution and Trafficking – USA (ECPAT-USA), Free the Slaves, International Justice Mission (IJM), Not For Sale Campaign, Polaris Project, Safe Horizon, Solidarity Center, Verité, Vital Voices Global Partnership, and World Vision. This coalition allows members to leverage each other’s expertise and speak with one strong voice to create lasting solutions in U.S. policies at the national and state levels and in corporate and government supply chains to ensure they are free from exploitation and slavery.

As consumers, we also have the power to use our voices and our wallets to create lasting solutions and change. You may not have extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the garment industry or know how agricultural products get from the fields to your supermarket, but by working with others, we can all make a bigger impact. That’s the beauty and importance of bringing people together from different backgrounds and talents with a shared vision of world without exploitation and slavery. Not for Sale Campaign, another ATEST member, created a useful mobile app and website called Free2Work that grades companies based on their efforts to address child labor and forced labor in their supply chain. We can’t throw up our hands and say changing markets or changing “the system” is too hard, or worse, impossible. We are called to wrestle with tough questions and work together to transform ourselves, communities, and the world. We’ve already seen how raising our voices in unison can impact the U.S. fight against slavery. How can we impact the market place together? Let’s start finding out.

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