Jul 04 (IPS) – Not many people want to buy products that involve the exploitation or enslavement of the workers who make them – but that’s exactly what most of us do on a daily basis.
Estimates reveal that there are 40.3 million people in slavery around the world as part of a $ 32 billion business. Extreme labor exploitation and other forms of modern slavery are embedded in the supply chains of many products and services that we choose to consume on a regular basis, such as laptops, cellphones, and clothing.
This raises important questions: to what extent are we responsible for the slavery that is directly linked to our consumption, and what role should consumers play in reducing the demand for and supply of manufactured goods and services? by exploited workers?
On the one hand, the few examples of government legislation – including the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015 – clearly impose a certain level of responsibility on consumers to be informed, to act and to make choices that contribute to eradicate modern slavery. These actions include reporting suspected cases of exploitation and boycotting known products of slavery.
In contrast, however, others increasingly argue that it is not for consumers to control modern slavery. Commentators such as Sarah O’Connor and Emily Kenway remind us that the causes of slavery are systemic, embedded in the processes and structures of commerce and governance. They rightly suggest that slavery and extreme forms of labor exploitation cannot be reduced without addressing the structural role of government and business.
Global supply chains are complex and generally inconspicuous or well understood by consumers. So asking them to take responsibility for how products are made can help businesses (who understand this) and governments (who have the power to change things) to get away with it. Government and business must do more to tackle slavery in production systems through, for example, greater transparency, but where does that leave the role of the consumer?
Focusing on UK consumers’ understanding of modern slavery, our research highlights a more complicated and active role for consumers in challenging the exploitation of the workers who produce the goods and services they consume.
It refers to the broader observation that buyers are often “complicit” in the social and environmental consequences of their consumption choices. Indeed, we see that consumers are not unaware of the risks of slavery and extreme labor exploitation. Even more worrying, some consumers explicitly express their indifference to these issues.
A review of modern slavery law and similar legislation reveals how our current system relies on consumers to report and boycott cases of slavery as a key mechanism in the comprehensive eradication plan. We agree with Kenway that shifting responsibility from corporations and governments to consumers risks relieving these powerful actors of their duties and commitments.
Yet should this argument be used to deny all attempts to mobilize consumers? While it is fair to be wary of attempts to shift blame onto consumers, we argue that taking responsibility away from consumers and insisting that the consumer arena remain a seemingly benign and apolitical arena is also not. a useful way.
Considerable consumer inertia in response to scandals in the UK such as Boohoo – which saw the company accused of sourcing clothes from factories with poor health and safety records and paying staff less than the minimum wage – illustrates the need to educate consumers about slavery. in their consumption and to raise their power of action. This can be presented as a call to consumers to take positive (lobbying) or negative (boycott) civic action.
It is important to recognize that citizen-consumers are used to taking action on important issues. For example, our understanding of environmental responsibilities as consumers is well established. It is accepted that “we must give the consumer at least part of the responsibility for making the economy sustainable”, as Tim Jackson writes in Material Concerns: Pollution, Profit and Quality of Life.
Imagine an action on climate change that does not include a role for consumers in taking responsibility for their own impact through the consumption choices they make. Changing the way we consume is an essential link in the transition to a cleaner and fairer society, even if companies are disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions. It shouldn’t be any different when we consider modern slavery.
While we do not support shifting unrealistic levels of responsibility onto consumers when it comes to ridding society of modern slavery, our research highlights an important role for consumers, revealing that they want to take action. – but not on their own.
They want to be partners in this modern slavery equation, especially with business and government. Increased consumer interest, involvement and action against modern slavery is sure to raise more, not less, questions about the roles and responsibilities of other groups involved, leading to greater transparency.
The consumer perspective should be seen as a useful ally of business and government strategies in the campaign to end modern slavery. In our roles as citizen-consumers, we can use our voices and actions to support and encourage positive change. And we also need to focus our energies on holding those with the most power and involvement to account.
Deirdre Shaw, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Studies, Glasgow university; Andreas Chatzidakis, Professor of Marketing, Royal Holloway University of London, and Michal Carrington, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, University of Melbourne
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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