Boycotts don't always help, but you can

How to harness consumer power against modern slavery.


The natural instinct to boycott slave-tainted products is not necessarily the most effective response. In many industries, there is no way to know whether a product was made at least in part by slave labor, and boycotting an industry could be disastrous. “It actually harms the 95 percent of farmers not using slavery more than the slaveholders,” says author and slavery expert Kevin Bales, “and it pushes people toward slavery, not away from it.”

But you can join in a movement to harness consumer power in new ways against slavery:

  • Honor slave-free certifications. If you are shopping for a carpet, ask for the Rugmark certification. Rugmark randomly inspects makers of handwoven oriental-style carpets in India, Pakistan, and Nepal to ensure they have not been made with slave labor.

  • Be alert to news of other certifications. The cocoa industry has agreed to ensure by next July that slavery is eradicated from its suppliers' plantations “Cocoa is the first product we chose to focus on, but it won't be the last,” says Jolene Smith, director of Free the Slaves, one of two nongovernmental organizations that signed the 2001 Cocoa Protocol with all the major chocolate companies.

  • Look for products with Fair Trade certifications, which require that no forced or bonded labor is used. This fall the UUSC began offering chocolate in addition to coffee from Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade company based in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

  • Look for products with organic, local, or union labels, suggests Pippin Whitaker, a member of Unitarian Universalists Against Slavery and a Ph.D. candidate studying human trafficking at the University of Mississippi. Although none of these labels guarantees slave labor was not used, the likelihood is much lower.

  • When you come across prices that are unbelievably cheap, consider what the laborers earned—if anything. Question sellers about the source of their products and what they know about the labor conditions. “When I see things selling at phenomenally low prices that were made in China, which is very difficult for us to get information about, and where prisons are run as factories, and there's no due process,” Bales says, “I choose not to risk spending my money on them.”

  • Avoid companies known to drive prices as low as possible, with no regard for labor costs or conditions.

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