Saturday, April 22nd is #EarthDay and so we wanted to take this opportunity to share some information on how climate change, sustainability and environmental issues are interconnected with the eradication of modern slavery and human trafficking, and what we as consumers can do about it.
Climate change and modern slavery are closely linked in a vicious cycle of destruction.
Here’s one example of how…
Climate change can cause natural disasters, which results in displacement and creates climate refugees. People who are displaced have the potential to be targeted for human trafficking due to their increased vulnerability and can be exploited in industries that contribute to climate change.
However, this also means that by helping reduce one issue, you significantly impact the other.
The eradication of climate change would help modern slavery efforts and vice versa. There is a reinforcing loop that would aid both social causes. For example, reducing fast fashion could close factories in which many are forced to work in.
If you care about one cause, you can double your impact by being mindful of the other.
By considering your power as a consumer. Consumers have the power to choose the future. That means that YOU have the power to influence demand and make a difference. Capitalism fuels exploitative industries where human rights are violated and climate change is accelerated. This cycle of destruction in response to demand can be stopped if we all make better purchasing decisions.
How we shop directly impacts both the environment and the prevalence of modern slavery in our society. In this article, we’ll be deep diving into a couple of areas that you mightn’t have realised that human trafficking exists within.
Learn more below about how everyday products such as clothing, electric batteries, and makeup may be produced using modern slavery, and what you can do to avoid contributing to the problem by purchasing ethically.
Are the clothes you are wearing tainted by modern slavery?
Cotton is an ever-present aspect of the fashion industry. It is used in t-shirts, jeans, sweats and underwear due to its softness and durability. However, cotton has a dirty secret. A large percentage of the world’s cotton harvest comes from countries that routinely use forced labour.
In fact, more than 20% of the world’s cotton comes from just one notorious region, with well-documented human rights abuses. In other parts of the world, governments send thousands of their citizens, including those in professional occupations like teachers, doctors and nurses, into the cotton fields. Those failing to pick enough cotton to hit the targets imposed on them face harassment from the authorities and risk losing their jobs.
The problem worsens when countries that employ slave labour are too powerful for individual companies to stand against. Companies that have dared to voice their concerns over what is happening in cotton-picking regions face threats of a boycott from the government concerned. In the wake of this boycott threat, major global apparel companies, have removed policies against forced labour from their websites. So far, these companies are in the minority, but they own global fashion labels. The booming cotton market will continue to embolden oppressive regimes to use slave labour in their fields.
Fashion brands, nervous about PR damage from using slaves in their supply chain, have taken notice. International pressure has been brought to bear on countries that have used forced labour, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In these areas, boycotts and sanctions have slowly led to change, although there is still a significant way to go.
What can we do?
The fashion industry, like any business, will respond to consumer demand. It is up to us to ensure that the clothes we buy are not made with cotton picked by people living and working in conditions of modern slavery. That is easier to discover than you might think.
Here at Hope for Justice and Slave-Free Alliance, we are working with over 100 multinational companies, including eight constituent companies of the FTSE 100, to ensure that their supply chains are slave-free. It is possible to do it, and people are watching. There is now a searchable public register of modern slavery statements: https://modern-slavery-statement-registry.service.gov.uk/search*
So, as a consumer, before buying from a big company, check if they are on the register and what they are doing about modern slavery. For example, have they sought help from Slave-Free Alliance? If they are not on the register, reach out to them and ask why not!
Is your electric car the new ‘blood diamond’?
Is our push to a greener future coming at the cost of child labour? Like many worldwide, the U.K. government is pushing for an increase in electric vehicles to meet its climate change commitments. But what if our drive for greener technology is powered by child labour? How can we, as consumers, be confident that our new electric car has been built slave-free?
Let me give you some background. The vast majority of commercial lithium-ion batteries contain the element cobalt. This metal is energy-dense and therefore perfect for the manufacture of batteries, especially those found in our consumer electronics and the new wave of electric cars.
Unfortunately, 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This area has suffered from decades of instability and conflict. The cobalt mines are notorious for being run by armed militias who frequently use forced labour, including children. Let me be clear, when I say forced labour, I’m talking about children as young as eight being used as slaves to mine the metal that powers our electric cars. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in the DRC use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground in shocking conditions. Deaths and injuries are common.
The cobalt is then shipped to the world’s industrial nations and used to manufacture batteries – the same batteries that you and I use on an almost-daily basis. The push for greener cars to combat climate change has an unforeseen impact as the demand for cobalt increases. This demand manifests in more pressure on the miners to deliver cobalt, meaning more forced labour in dangerous conditions.
But what can we do? Should we stop using every item with a battery? Our modern lives are built on electronics; even if we wanted to stop using batteries, it is an impractical solution. What then are our choices? The problem appears to be unsolvable due to its distance and complexity.
The situation is difficult, but it isn’t hopeless. Some companies are making changes. The U.K. Modern Slavery Act requires all organisations in the U.K. with a turnover of over £36 million to provide an annual statement of the steps they are taking to protect their supply chain against modern slavery. A 2010 U.S. law requires American companies to verify that any tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold they use is obtained from mines free of militia control in the DRC. Adding cobalt to that list would be a step forward. Currently, few companies regularly track where their cobalt comes from. Following the path from mine to the finished product is difficult – but it is possible. There is the means for a company to investigate their supply chain, but is there the will?
Yes, it’s complicated. It costs time, energy and money to ensure that a supply chain is free of forced labour. But surely that cost is worth it to live in a world that is free from slavery? Would we want to live in any other world?
What is the cost of your sparkle?
The shimmer and shine in most cosmetics are created by a mineral called mica. From eye shadow to nail polish, mica is found in make-up used every day by millions across the world. You can find it on the ingredients labels as ‘potassium aluminium silicate’ and ‘CI 77019’. It’s what gives body lotion or eye cream a light glow and makes toothpaste look bright. The label doesn’t tell you that the majority of the world’s mica comes from India, where it is often dug out of the ground by children, using antiquated methods in slave-like conditions.
Children as young as 6 years old have been found working in mica mines. Their job is to squeeze into the tiny tunnels dug in the hillside.
Once in the tunnels, they chip away with picks and hammers, trying to extract the precious mineral where it can be sifted and crushed. They work for a few pennies each day in dangerous conditions. Tunnel collapses are commonplace. It’s estimated, as official figures don’t exist, that between five and ten children die in the mines each month. Not only is the work dangerous and soul-crushing, but it keeps the children from school and therefore perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Estimates place the number of children working in mica mines at over 20,000. As well as being denied an education, child miners often contract long-term health conditions like silicosis, a life-threatening lung disease caused by inhaling dust from the mines
After the mica is removed, it is sold to a broker who sells it to an exporter. The mica then ends up in a factory where our cosmetics are produced and shipped around the world. International beauty companies desire the pearly pigment made by mica, and they add it to blush, lipstick and more. Sadly, each person in the supply chain financially benefits from obscuring the origin of the mica because it keeps costs low by allowing exporters to exploit the people mining it.
This problem seems massive and a million miles away, is there anything we can do to stop it?
“Mica is not a problem, nor is mica mining,” says Liz van Velzen of child relief agency Terre des Hommes. “If the mining companies would pay living wages and make sure working conditions met international standards, parents would be able to work safely and earn enough to provide for their families and send their children to school.”
There are great beauty brands that recognise the mica problem and are only using ethical or synthetic mica in their products. The best way of knowing is to check out the company website and see what they say about mica. If they’re saying nothing, that is a red flag. Here’s a list of some companies that we know are addressing the issue.
- Pura Anada
- Clove + Hallow
- Au Naturale
- Aether Beauty
- Elate Cosmetics
- Dr, Hauschka
- 100% Pure
- Fat and the Moon
- Red Apple Lipstick
- Mica – Free Makeup
- Haut Cosmetics
As with any issue like this, awareness is key.
Learning about these issues and raising awareness is the start of creating a long-lasting impact in the fight to end modern slavery and human trafficking for good. Do your research, ask questions, and hold brands accountable before you buy to help protect the people on the production line.
We’ve pooled together some useful resources below – check them out.
- Policy Brief – Climate, Crime and Exploitation (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, October 2022)
- Modern slavery, environmental degradation and climate change – present and future pathways for addressing the nexus (University of Nottingham Rights Lab, June 2021)
- Growing evidence of the interconnections between modern slavery, environmental degradation, and climate change (Decker Sparks et al., February 2021)
- The climate change–human trafficking nexus (International Organization for Migration, 2016)
- Climate Change and Human Trafficking After the Paris Agreement (University of Miami Law Review, September 2018)
- Breaking the cycle of modern slavery (Global Trade Review, April 2023)
- Climate change, migration and vulnerability to trafficking (International Institute of Environment and Development, May 2022)
Together we can protect people and protect the planet.
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*For organisations, none of this needs to be an administrative nightmare. If you would like information on how your own company can effectively monitor your supply chain, and how to share the steps you take using the public register in order to inspire confidence among your customers and partners, please get in touch with Slave-Free Alliance email@example.com.