• Holly Jo

Your Clothes Were Made By Slaves

Following the toppling of the statue glorifying slave trader, Edward Colston, in Bristol, England, there has been a renewed interest in the history of slavery and colonialism within the United Kingdom. A number of petitions and campaigns demanding all statues of slave traders to be removed have been set up, and with some success. This petition on change.org has already garnered over 160,000 signatures, and the movement has been widely reported on through both local and national news organisations. It seems more people than ever are waking up to the history of slavery within this country – so why are they yet to wake up to the products of slavery sitting in their wardrobes?

An estimated 40 million people are living in modern slavery today, many of whom reside in the Global South where they work as part of western fashion supply chains. Of that 40 million, 71% are female. Modern slavery “covers a set of specific legal concepts including forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery, and slavery-like practices and human trafficking.” In an applied sense, this means child labourers forced to pick cotton because their smaller fingers make them more suited to the job, women workers threatened repeatedly with violence and rape if they don’t meet daily quotas, and employees forced to sleep next to their work station to ensure factory owners can squeeze as many workable hours out of them as possible.

According to the Global Slavery Index (GSI), the Global South has the highest prevalence of modern slavery – particularly in Africa (with the worst affected countries being Mauritania, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea); and the Middle East/Asia (the worst affected areas being Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia and North Korea). However, this is not a problem limited to the Global South, as there are thousands of modern slaves in the West too. A 2018 report from the GSI found that there were more than 400,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States – that’s 1 in 800 of the population. It also found 136,000 modern slaves in the United Kingdom, around 2.1 victims per 1,000 people.

As previously mentioned, the fashion industry is one of the biggest proponents of modern slavery, and a number of world-renowned brands, like Inditex (Zara, Pull and Bear, Bershka…) and H&M Group (H&M, COS, & Other Stories, Monki…) have been exposed for exploiting modern slaves in the past. Part of the reason instances of slavery are frequently found in the fashion industry is that, the larger a brand is, the less control it has over its supply chain, meaning, as much as the brand may claim to be against unethical practices, illegal activities can slip through the cracks unnoticed. I have previously written a blog post that provides a more detailed look into specific cases of modern slavery and unethical supply chain practices within these brands which you can find here.

While some companies are stepping the right direction in order to root out modern slavery, many brands still refuse to publish supplier lists or even implement any official policies in terms of sustainability. According to Fashion Revolution’s 2018 Fashion Transparency Index, 48 companies out of 250 assessed ranked between 0-10% - these included Amazon, Monsoon Accessorize, Sainsbury’s Tu Clothing, Forever 21, Lacoste, Matalan, Marc Jacobs, Urban Outfitters, Armani, Michael Kors, Chanel, and Dior. A score of between 0-5% means the brands ‘are disclosing nothing at all or a very limited number of policies, which tend to be related to the brand’s job hiring practices or local community engagement activities’; while, 5-10% means they ‘are likely to be publishing some policies for both its own employees and suppliers.’

Slavery is not a thing of the past. Slavery is not an issue that can be toppled in the same way as a statue. Slavery is happening right now. The heavy lifting now lies with these brands – they must hold themselves accountable, actively engage with their supply chain, and bring in third-party auditors to review and root out unethical practices within their business models. As consumers, our power is limited to our pockets – in order to show our disdain for modern slavery we must boycott fast fashion entirely. Only in doing so can we ever hope to move forward in our campaign for civil rights.


Image by: Hussain Badshah

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