From Ketchup to Cotton, ‘Most of the Things You Buy Have Been Touched by Slavery’

Advocates such as Slavery Footprint and President Obama say it’s time to set all people free.

Some 20 million victims of human trafficking are working in slavery conditions around the world today. (Photo: Kris Connor/Getty Images).

Sep 27, 2012· 2 MIN READ
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

The Obama Administration has partnered with a California nonprofit to help companies ensure their supply chains are free of slave labor—less than two weeks after the White House left aid funding in place for countries it knows are doing next to nothing to combat human traffficking.

Slavery Footprint, an Oakland-based group, made headlines last year with a website that guides consumers through a short, interactive graphic that guesstimates—based on purchase patterns—how many slaves work to support the respondent’s quality of life.

Now Slavery Footprint is part of a multipronged approach by the Obama Administration to curb human trafficking—the modern-day term for human slavery.

MORE: How Many Slaves Do You Own?

Dubbed Made in a Free World, and launched on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative as a Champion of Action, the innovative Slavery Footprint tool is designed to help companies “identify high risk areas for forced labor within their supply chain [and] work with independent auditors to address those risks,” according to a release.

Moreover, Made in a Free World aims to guide multinational corporations toward “ethical procedures for sourcing materials” and to recognize industry leaders in the combating of forced labor.

“The reality is that slavery is at the bottom of most of the supply chains that support our lives,” says Dillon. “Most of the things you buy have been touched by slavery.”

Essentially, Made in a Free World’s leverage comes from the power of the free market—consumer choice, brand enhancement—to steer companies away from slavery-tainted suppliers.

“Our first line of attack is to work with these top brands,” Justin Dillon, the founder and chief executive of Slavery Footprint, tells TakePart. “It’s working. Companies are stepping up.”

Dillon notes that slave-labor practices have been linked to everything from Florida-grown tomatoes to electronics manufacturing in China to cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan, where suppliers have been accused of exploiting child labor.

“The reality is that slavery is at the bottom of most of the supply chains that support our lives,” says Dillon. “Most of the things you buy have been touched by slavery.”

As Dillon works to partner with companies on the Made in a Free World initiative, President Obama this week touted his administration’s commitment to end human trafficking.

“I recently renewed sanctions on some of the worst abusers, including North Korea and Eritrea,” Obama said Tuesday during a speech in New York at the Clinton Global Initiative.

“We’re partnering with groups that help women and children escape from the grip of their abusers. We’re helping other countries step up their own efforts. And we’re seeing results,” he added. “More nations have passed and more are enforcing modern anti-trafficking laws.”

Obama also signed an executive order that tightened federal contracting rules in a way designed to prevent federal money from going to fund human trafficking. “We will have zero tolerance,” Obama said in his address. “We mean what we say. We will enforce it.”

Due diligence alert: On September 14, Obama gave a pass from sanctions and cuts in foreign aid to Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, the Central African Republic, Kuwait, Papua New Guinea and Yemen—seven of the globe’s most egregious hosts for human trafficking and child soldiers. Six other slave-running countries received partial exemptions.

Dillon says that while governments work to enforce new laws, or circumvent them, consumers and the companies they buy from can do their parts too.

“There hasn’t been the consumer will to push further,” he says, pointing to the tendency of most people to prefer low prices over responsible manufacturing.

That apathy has begun to change, though, as consciousness grows through initiatives such as Fair Trade and, potentially, Made in a Free World.

In the meantime, more than 20 million victims of human trafficking around the world are working for you, whether or not you acknowledge their labor.

Are you brave enough to take the Slavery Footprint challenge? Leave a tally and your thoughts about it in COMMENTS.