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How You May Indirectly Be Funding Child Slavery

We talked to the creator of Slavery Footprint, a new website that shows how many slaves are working for you in the global supply chain.

Drew Millard

Drew Millard

Kids forced to work in mica mines in India. Screen grab via Made In a Free World

This article originally appeared on VICE US

Slavery Footprint is a site that asks the simple question, "How many slaves work for you?" The answer feels like it should be zero—after all, nobody reading this owns another human being (I hope). But because of the vast network of supply chains that make up our ever-increasing global marketplace, it turns out that it's a pretty hard question to answer.

As a thought exercise, let's consider the sparkly stuff, like the paint on your car. A common way to make something sparkle is to infuse it with mineral called mica, explains Justin Dillon of Made In a Free World, an organization dedicated to promoting transparent and humane supply chains. "Anywhere between 50 and 60 percent of the world's mica," Dillon tells me, "comes from a region in India where it's mined by kids using prehistoric tools going down into rathole mines. They come out with sparkles on their face."

Dillon's not bullshitting—last year, it was revealed that at least 12 multinational companies had been purchasing mica that had been mined by children. And it quickly came out that those kids weren't exactly working in those mines because they were looking for an alternative to a paper route. "It's painful to see. I look at sparkles very differently now," Dillon says.

Modern-day slavery, Dillon explains, is "extreme poverty with the bottom dropped out." It means being a person who is forced to work in terrible conditions who doesn't have the privilege of stopping. "Anywhere where you don't have the structure around you to protect you and hold you at a basic level of justice," Dillon says, "the conditions are there for you to fall into slavery." According to data from Made In a Free World, over 29 million people could be considered "slaves" under that definition.

Fortunately, there are steps people can take to fight this new version of slavery. Namely, they can help to change the attitudes that make people complicit about the use of forced labor in the supply chains of products they use. Made in a Free World aims to bring awareness to forced labor in supply chains, not just among consumers, but among large corporations who have the power to alter purchasing decisions on a large scale. If enough massive corporations start buying from suppliers who enforce fair labor practices, maybe people can feel a little less bad about buying stuff, armed with the knowledge that they're doing so responsibly.

VICE: Give me an overview of Made in a Free World's mission.
Justin Dillon: We're trying to use the power of free markets to free people. That's our cute phrase [laughs]. The way we do that is twofold: through our brand, which is an affiliation of consumers and businesses, which helps people look into their own purchasing habits with intelligence and then leverage their purchasing power. That goes for you and me and the way that we buy things, as well as for large, multinational companies. Our belief is that the way to end slavery is to ruin the business of slavery. We haven't seen a way to do that yet. We've realized we need to do it with consumers and governments, and now we're working with businesses to use their market power to disrupt it.

When did you debut the Slavery Footprint site?
It had its fourth birthday on Tuesday. We launched it on the 149th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation with the expectation that we'd get 150,000 users. We've seen over 24 million users from every country. It's really based off the simple question of, 'Do you want to know how many slaves work for you?' We're very careful that the word "if" does not exist in that question.

One thing that's really interesting about the site is that it foregrounds the fact that modern slavery is very much tied to the supply chains that have arisen as a side-effect of globalization.
It's understandable that people don't think about it. In America we have this colloquial, antique idea that slavery is "chattel slavery." For us, we believe that slavery is extreme poverty with the bottom dropped out. It's very hard to pull yourself out of poverty already—a lot of people in slavery are individuals and groups that are at extremely high levels of vulnerability due to economic or state situations, like stateless migrants. Anywhere where you don't have the structure around you to protect you and hold you at a basic level of justice, the conditions are there for you to fall into slavery.

Are there companies who are willfully complicit in slave labor?
We've got a pretty steady eye on this, and we don't see companies willfully complicit. The reason we've started what we do with consumers is to say, 'We all have a role to play in this.' If consumers are willing to tackle their own slavery footprint, then the question becomes, are companies ready to do that too?

We've built the tools for you to not only get that answer, but to know what to do with it, and we've built an organization and a brand that tells companies they should get credit for doing that in the marketplace. To me, that's how we change the world. We don't change the world by pretending to be perfect. We change the world by incrementally doing good things. It's absolutely impossible for a company to be perfect. But it's absolutely possible for a company to protect the people in their supply chain.

It seems like a lot of large corporations are ignorant of what's actually going on in their supply chains. And even if that's willful, that seems more like greed than actual evil.
I think that part of our movement is to make it extremely uncool to ignore this as a consumer or a business. It's just absolutely lame. Especially given that we actually have the tools to start addressing it. That, to me, makes it even more lame. In a lot of ways as an organization, what we decided to work on not only the problem itself but the context around it. Let's make it impossible to be ignorant. Our goal over the next 15 years is to build a robust consumer-business freedom network where our purchases and our values can connect. As our dollars leave the consumer and go to the brand and then the manufacturer and then the sub-tiers below that, our values should follow them. It's all about informed purchases.

I think for a lot of consumers and individuals, there's a mentality of 'Well, this problem is so big that I can't fight this, so I might as well be complicit and look the other way.'
We want to make sure that position is being viewed culturally as extremely lame as well. We think being conscious is saying, 'I'll buy what I can.' We've already brought on 40 or so companies that are small but are making those commitments. Some of these brands are going to become the next Gap, the next Whole Foods. They're building their supplier networks based on those values. It's going to become the new normal. There are big companies figuring out how to retrofit what they already have. Doing conscious and ethical at scale deserve attention.

Who are some companies that are doing it on a large level?
We're working with a lot of large companies right now, but we're not allowed to talk about them. These companies are afraid of talking about what they're doing on these issues because they're afraid they're going to get beat up for it. This idea of everything having to be perfect before you acknowledge it is ridiculous. That needs to be fixed. We tend to have a very cathartic response to this issue and not one with much imagination and innovation. As large companies start to step out and say, 'Here's what we're doing, here's how we're fixing what's in place,' we'll stand up beside them and say what they're doing is good. Any large company that partners with us, they're never done. There's no box to check. You can't just check once and say, 'We're good!' These are vigilance efforts.

"As our dollars leave the consumer and go to the brand and then the manufacturer and then the sub-tiers below that, our values should follow them" — Justin Dillon

Is it cheap goods specifically that have a human cost?
Cheap goods are certainly at a high risk, but luxury goods have a risk too. Just because they're expensive doesn't mean they're off the hook. I would say even some goods that claim to be 'ethical' are not. 'Ethical' is a very big word.

It's got a very elastic definition.
I'm not hating on it. It's a push in the right direction. But we have to go even further. The risk of unfair labor practices going into our goods doesn't just happen at a cut-and-sew shop in Bangladesh. It happens in a field in Uzbekistan or a palm plantation in Malaysia. The things coming from there end up in our toothpastes and our clothes and our electronics. Aren't those people out in the fields just as important as the ones in the factories? We can get to them through our networks and our purchases.

I think there's a risk of words like 'ethical' and 'conscious' becoming marketing buzzwords.
I think we're going to see people asking, 'What do these words mean?' We think data is the ultimate accountability. I like those words, but what I really like is when you can see exactly what they mean. It's not 'conscious' because it sits in a category, it's 'conscious' because a company has data on their supply chain, and they're requiring certain things from their sub-supplier, and you can know and can track all that.

Do you have any sort of immediate steps people can take to stop buying from products that come from bad supply chains?
They can buy from companies that are already made in the free world. We have a list of these companies on our site. We've got granola, socks, underwear, high-end fashion, sunglasses, backpacks, shoes, necklaces, bikes. It's stuff you might not buy every day, but the next time you buy shoes or sunglasses, options are there. The way you increase these options is to show that consumers buy from companies that share their values. We want to win with capitalism. We really think this battle is going to be won at the cash register.

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Are there any products whose terrible supply chains surprised you?
Anything that sparkles. Automotive paint, holographic cards, nail polish, cosmetics, glitter, it all comes from this mineral called mica. Anywhere between 50 and 60 percent of the world's mica comes from a region in India where it's mined by kids using prehistoric tools going down into rathole mines. They come out with sparkles on their face. India says those mines have been shut down for two decades. But our film crew saw something different. We live in a world where kids work, but there's a difference between a kid working because they want to and they have the option to and a kid being forced to work. It's painful to see. I look at sparkles very differently now.

I'm never going to think about, like, strip clubs the same way again.
Think about what?

Strippers are always very glittery.
[Laughs] Strip clubs are not sustainable.

Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.