Today, over 49 million people live in what is known as modern slavery, including one in 130 women and girls, and it’s a problem that grows more dire with each passing day. Although we often imagine human trafficking to mean shadowy figures in alleyways kidnapping victims—and it often does—the reality is we may be unknowingly perpetuating human exploitation and even benefiting from its spoils by ignoring how the goods we buy are produced.
Fortunately, there are steps the government is taking to change this, and there is much that businesses and consumers can do, too.
January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which went into effect last summer, is likely the broadest import legislation in modern U.S. history targeting forced labor, pushing the global retail industry to take an unprecedented step in the fight against human trafficking.
Each year, an estimated $125 billion worth of garments are produced using some form of slavery and imported to the wealthiest countries in the world. While we’ve certainly seen consumers express a desire for more supply chain transparency and awareness spreading, positive changes occurred in baby steps—until now.
The UFLPA, currently in its first full year of action, will transform the American fashion industry by changing the way the United States imports goods from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China, one of the industry’s most common sourcing regions. Here, members of the Uyghur ethnic minority are forced into state-sponsored labor—but goods produced there are no longer permitted as U.S. imports. Under the UFLPA, U.S. authorities must assume that any goods or merchandise manufactured in XUAR—in whole or in part—were produced via forced labor. This means a ban on all goods from the XUAR, unless there is “clear and convincing evidence” that they were not produced this way.
For the retail industry, this is a paradigm shift. As recently as 2020, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s cotton was produced under forced labor conditions in the XUAR, much of which goes into the jeans and T-shirts we buy. Under the UFLPA, this can no longer happen. What makes the law even more remarkable is that the law bans goods that were even partially manufactured in the XUAR. So, if 90 percent of a sweater’s manufacturing process took place in India or Bangladesh, but the remaining 10 percent of the production process involved passing through the XUAR, that sweater cannot be imported to the U.S. for sale.
In the past, supply chains have been difficult to vet because they can involve convoluted steps and materials sourced across many factories and locations—and this has allowed unethical manufacturers to slip their goods in through the cracks. Now, the UFLPA provides an opportunity for our country to obtain clear evidence of exactly where supply chain abuses are occurring and how they are happening—thus enabling the law to be applied and enforced effectively.
On the consumer side, supportive steps are already in motion. In fact, young people are adamant about where they place their support, with 83 percent of young consumers saying they want the brands they shop to align with their beliefs, and 65 percent report having boycotted a brand in the past based on their values.
Although the term “boycott” dates back to the 19th century, voting with one’s purse goes back even further. One of the first records is from the early 1700s, and perhaps most notably in 1791, two British abolitionists, William Fox and James Wright, resisted purchasing sugar produced by enslaved people in the Caribbean. They published pamphlets encouraging consumers to boycott slave-produced sugar and started a movement that earned a nickname: the anti-saccharites.
Today, nearly 250 years later, consumers can continue the time-honored tradition of voting with their dollars. When shoppers opt to spend their hard-earned cash on clothes that were made in vetted ethical factories that pay workers, they’re showing brands exactly where they stand—and providing an incentive for the industry to clean up its act.
While legislative measures like the UFLPA and consumer action are both critical moves toward ending modern slavery in supply chains, we can take even stronger steps to lead the way. Brands can make a difference by getting clear on exactly what’s happening at each step of their supply chains, implementing third-party vetting of workplace safety and wages in each of their factories, and sharing their progress toward transparency with consumers. By championing progress over perfection, brands can align with their customers’ values in the process and help reduce forced labor.
The more brands take these types of actions, the closer they are to becoming industry-wide standards. And changes like these are in every brand’s best interest—not only to avoid diluting the integrity of their brand, but also to pave the way for a world where no one is forced to work under duress. Clothing should be an industry of joy and self-expression. But when forced labor plays a part in its production, it becomes an industry of suffering. Let’s all commit to raising the standard.
Jane Mosbacher Morris is the founder and CEO of TO THE MARKET, a technology platform powering the ethical supply chain. She is also the author of Buy the Change You Want to See (Penguin Random House, 2019). She previously worked in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.