As consumers, do we encourage slavery?

The number of people living in slave-like conditions has been growing steadily since 2016 and it is no secret that mass production of cheap goods often relies on factories in developing countries where people work in subhuman conditions. So why do we continue to ignore the issue as consumers?


The latest estimates from the Global Slavery Index’s annual report indicate that 50 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery and that almost 10 million more men, women, girls and boys have been forced into labour or marriage since 2016.

Although modern slavery can take many forms, regarding labour, we refer to it as a condition of exploitation whereby a person, today, is forced to work in subhuman conditions without being able to refuse because of coercion, threats or abuse of power, among others.

Tragedies such as the one in Bangladesh in 2013, when the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing 1134 people and injuring 2500, or the fire at the school bag factory in Delhi in 2019, where dozens of workers who produced goods and garments for Western clothing brands died, exposed the role of the fashion industry in modern slavery.

It is a secret that has been hidden in plain sight for years. From raw materials to manufacturing to packaging to delivery, modern slavery is embedded in the supply chains of the global garment industry that meets consumer demand in Europe, the United States and other developed economies.


The human cost of fast fashion

The fast fashion business model, initially popularised by large chains such as Zara and H&M and recently joined by other brands such as Shein and Temu, is based on mass production and consumption that increases at the same speed as changing trends. Consumers buy clothes that are fashionable but of low quality and low cost.

The brands that offer this type of articles change their products frequently. To maximise profits, they carry out a policy of offshoring by manufacturing them in developing countries, paying workers low wages and even ignoring shortcomings in terms of safety or working conditions.

This production model is not only very aggressive towards the environment and has led the textile industry to become the second most polluting in the world but entails complex and opaque supply chains, many of them marred by forced labour.


Our responsibility as consumers

Today’s globalised supply chains indeed make it almost impossible to prevent the goods or services we consume from being free from the scourge of exploitation or even slavery. Still, this cannot be an excuse for shirking our responsibility as consumers to inform ourselves about how a product is made, rather than simply choosing the cheapest one.

Cultural relativism or the trivialisation of the concept of slavery can help us to lessen our sense of guilt, but these semantic gymnastics cannot let us forget that, as consumers, we can play an important role in fostering collective awareness through responsible shopping and demanding more concrete actions from big brands to tackle a systemic problem that we have all perpetuated.

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