For a few years, the idea that the fashion industry was the world's second-most polluting industry circulated constantly, repeated in endless articles and sustainability summits. While that fact has turned out to be impossible to prove, a new report suggests one that's just as dark: The fashion supply chain funnels more money toward modern slavery than any other industry besides tech.
Slave labor sneaks into the fashion industry in myriad ways, from children who are lured into coerced factory labor via promises of free education to cotton pickers who are kept in debt bondage by their employers. In an increasingly globalized industry, where fabric may be woven, cut and sewn in different nations before being shipped to yet another to be sold, slavery in any country is a problem for every country.
The Global Slavery Index's 2018 report, published by the Walk Free Foundation, states that $127.7 billion worth of garments at risk of including modern slavery in their supply chain are imported annually by G20 countries, a group of nations which account for 80 percent of world trade. These imports help underwrite a global economy that trapped 40.3 million people in modern slavery in 2016, 71 percent of whom were women. This means that even in developed nations where forced labor may seem unthinkable to the average citizen, consumers are still supporting slavery in a crucial way — through our imports of clothing, tech and other commodities.
The U.S., for example, has one of the lower rates of modern slavery, but far out-consumes its global neighbors. While California passed an act in 2010 that requires large companies to publicly disclose their efforts to address slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains, the act is only valid in that state — and any brand with an annual global business under $100 million is exempted from this transparency legislation.
Across the pond in the U.K., the problem takes a similar format, with imports of apparel possibly tainted by slave labor being worth $9,289,350 annually. Like California's legislation, the U.K. Modern Slavery Act of 2016 requires that businesses of a certain size publish what they're doing to combat slave labor in their supply chains. Since then, thousands of brands including Burberry and Asos have released statements on the matter. While these statements are a starting point, their efficacy in changing policy is unclear, as some of the statements are not easily available and some aren't even signed by relevant company executives.
So what can be done to address the problem and move toward a slavery-free global supply chain? It starts, the Walk Free Foundation suggests, with citizens and governments everywhere acknowledging that we're all implicated in this mess.
"Too often, the onus of eliminating modern slavery is placed only on the countries where the crime is perpetrated," the Global Slavery Index website claims. "They certainly have a responsibility, but they are not alone in this regard. An atrocity as large and pervasive as modern slavery requires a united, global response."
Read the full report here.