Slavery in the supply chain first hit the headlines in 2014 when the source of the seafood served in New York's high-end restaurants was traced back to forced labour on fishing vessels. Since then the word and all its ugly connotations have often been in the news. Slavery surfaced with documented incidences of child labour in cotton farming in Uzbekistan, and again with the production of cocoa in Cote d'Ivoire.
In 2018, slavery in fashion hit the headlines when luxury houses were criticised for a lack of clarity in their production chain in Fashion Revolution's Transparency Index. This deficiency perpetuates the problem of slavery in the supply chain, as greater transparency results in greater scrutiny and therefore greater accountability.
Today’s buyers need to ask themselves: what is modern slavery and how does it exist in the supply chains of brands from the West? Slavery is defined by the Walk Free Foundation as human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced and servile marriage, and the sale and exploitation of children. It is understood to refer to situations where people are exploited without the ability to refuse because of threats, violence, coercion, deception or abuse of power.
The global Slavery Index estimated in 2016 that 40.3 million people worldwide were living in modern slavery. Of these, 71 per cent are estimated to be women and girls, with 15.4 million of them in forced marriages, and about two-thirds live in the Asia Pacific region. Garment production is listed as the second most likely industry to result in modern-day slavery, behind only the production of computers and mobile phones, and above the fishing industry, cocoa and sugar cane farming.
Servitude happens as a result of brands seeking to lower their production costs. It happens to vulnerable populations such as migrant workers. It happens when workers are subjected to recruitment fees leading to debt bondage. It happens in factories where trade unions are banned. It happens in regions where poverty is so prevalent that it leads to human trafficking. It happens where people are displaced through conflict or environmental disaster. It happens when manufacturers subcontract work. And sometimes it happens so far back in the supply chain that brands claim to be unaware, sometimes wilfully so, of its existence.
The garment supply chain is infamous for its complexity, with a Behind the Barcode report in 2015 documenting that 75 per cent of 219 brands surveyed did not know the source of all their fabrics and inputs, and only half could trace where their products were cut and sewed. Fibre for textile production is routinely sourced from one location, sent to another country for spinning, perhaps another region for weaving or knitting and yet another for cutting and sewing into garments, before being shipped to a warehouse for distribution. This can result in garment production circumventing the globe, which is a direct result of chasing the cheapest possible production costs.
Goal eight of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals requires immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, and end modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030. The UK already has anti-slavery legislation that requires businesses worth more than £36 million (Dh167.6m) to publish an annual Modern Slavery Statement, which reports on what they are doing to eliminate it in their supply chains. California has a similar bill called the California Transparency in Supply Chains. Akin to the UK legislation in a sense, it requires documentation; however, it does not enforce action.
Further moves were taken following a 2016 estimate, which found that there were 11,700 victims of slavery in the UK alone, with millions more in the global supply chains of Britain's businesses. By November 2018, British police had 920 current investigations that involved more than 2,000 victims. In January, Asos launched a programme to support third-party brands that sell through its online marketplace to commit to ending slavery in its supply chains by 2020.
While there is work being done at the corporate and government level, the question to be asked is what can we, the consumer, do to ensure the products we buy are not the result of forced labour? Here are three options to start with: One, choose to buy from brands that trace their supply chains. According to Fashion Revolution's Transparency Index these include Adidas, Reebok and Patagonia, which each scored 64 per cent of the 250 parameters this year. Two, choose to buy from brands that are fair-trade-certified, such as J Crew, Madewell and Aventura. Finally, use apps such as Good On You to find brands that are working to respect workers' rights, and those that support the call for transparency in the fashion supply chain. Some of these include: Zero Waste Daniel, Veja, Stella McCartney, Marks & Spencer, Know the Origin, Citizen Wolf and Mud Jeans.