Loading content

How can consumers help prevent modern slavery?

Our actions as consumers matter. Blog by Deirdre Shaw, Michal Carrington and Andreas Chatzidakis.

Published: 21st April 2021

As members of a local and global community, none of us wants to be complicit in the exploitation of others.

Yet, as consumers, we are continuously implicated in modern slavery through everyday consumption choices. The mainstream economy consists of products and services we purchase as part of our everyday lives, from tomatoes to prawns, t-shirts to jeans and cleaning services to car washes, that are known to be affected by such practices. So, what can we do in our role as consumers to stop and prevent this extreme form of human exploitation?

Current business models have created the conditions under which slavery can go undetected in supply chains. As businesses have moved around the world seeking ever-cheaper labour costs, the visibility of supply chains has become increasingly murky.

Consumer demand for cheaper and faster products and services and businesses’ willingness to compete on these dimensions makes exploitation more likely to occur, particularly in lower tiers of ever-more-complex supply chains. We do not only see this in well-cited examples like Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza, but also in the UK, not least the well-documented abuses in garment factories in Leicester.

While demand for cheap products and services is clearly more likely to create the conditions under which exploitation can thrive, price is no guarantee that a purchase is free from exploitation. The current lack of visibility into the products and services that we consume makes it challenging for consumers to make choices that are guaranteed to be free of abuses.

How do you avoid slavery in your consumption when it is everywhere? What can you do when there are no clearly identified pathways to action that can be applied to consumption? Indeed, in previous research, we found that consumers were confused as to what constituted modern slavery, who can be identified as a person affected by it and what makes them vulnerable, and what role consumers do and can play within a broader framework of actions that also involve government, business and NGOs.

While the consumer has been cited as an important stakeholder in modern slavery, not enough attention has been paid to what exactly consumers can do to support efforts to eradicate it. While efforts to raise consumer awareness abound, what consumers can do post awareness has been neglected. Furthermore, as the recent case of Boohoo has dramatically illustrated, awareness is not sufficient for consumers to feel motivated let alone capable of acting upon issues of extreme labour exploitation.

The research we’re currently carrying out for the Modern Slavery PEC investigates how consumer action can be effectively supported and mobilised to address issues of modern slavery, and what interventions can be effective in instigating impactful consumer action. Firstly, we will review existing research on modern slavery and consumption ethics more generally to uncover both barriers and enablers to consumer action. Secondly, we will review existing research on anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaign effectiveness. Thirdly, we’ll carry out a deep dive review of real-world campaigns that have sought to mobilise the consumer in relation to instances of modern slavery.

We aim to produce evidence that can facilitate and support a shift in consumer demand from the products of modern slavery.

While, as consumers, we play an important role in creating demand for products and services affected by exploitation, through that demand we can also play a critical part by using our power to pressure for change. This does not need to be conflated with simply buying versus not buying certain services and products. Many successful campaigns have mobilised consumers in more creative ways, ultimately harnessing their power as part of multi-pronged strategies that address various governmental and industry actors. The End Uyghur Forced Labour campaign, for example, has seen consumer-facing brands publically commit to acting, building on concerns about their brand reputation.

Our actions and choices as consumers do matter – our project aims to further examine why, when and how.