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Few people want to buy products that involve the exploitation or enslavement of the workers who make them – but that is exactly most people do on a daily basis. Estimates reveal that there are 40.3 million people in slavery worldwide as part of an industry that generates an estimated $32 billion in profit each year. Extreme labor exploitation and other forms of modern slavery are embedded within the supply chains of many of the products and services that we choose to consume regularly, such as laptop computers, mobile phones, and of course, clothing

This raises important questions: how responsible are consumers for the slavery that is directly connected to our consumption, and what role should consumers play in reducing the demand and supply of products and services made by exploited workers? On one hand, the few examples of government legislation – including the United Kingdom’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act – clearly places some level of responsibility on consumers to be informed, to act, and to make choices that help to eradicate modern slavery. 

These actions include reporting suspected instances of exploitation and boycotting known products of slavery.

In contrast, other arguments are increasingly being made that it is not the responsibility of consumers to police modern slavery, particularly given that the causes of slavery are systemic, embedded within the processes and structures of commerce and governance. As FT columnist Sarah O’Connor and modern slavery and human trafficking expert and policy advisor Emily Kenway rightly assert, slavery and forms of extreme labor exploitation cannot be reduced without addressing the structural role of government and business. 

Consumer-citizen action

Global supply chains are complex and generally not visible or well understood by consumers. So, asking them to take responsibility for how products are made may let businesses – which do understand this – and governments – which do have the power to change things – off the hook. Government and business need to do more to address slavery in production systems through, for example, greater transparency, but where does that leave the role of the consumer? 

Focusing on UK consumer understanding of modern slavery, our research highlights a more complicated and active role for consumers in challenging the exploitation of workers who produce the goods and services they consume. It points to the broader observation that shoppers are often “complicit” when it comes to the social and environmental consequences of their consumer choices. Indeed, we find that consumers are not ignorant of the risks of slavery and extreme labor exploitation. More worryingly still, some consumers explicitly express their indifference towards such issues, presumably prioritizing convenience and cost-savings instead. 

Reviewing the Modern Slavery Act and similar legislation reveals how our current system relies on consumers to report and boycott instances of slavery as a key mechanism in the overall eradication plan. And while we agree that shifting responsibility away from businesses and governments and on to the consumer risks relieving these powerful players of their duties and commitments, should this argument be used to negate all attempts to mobilize consumers? 

While it is right to be suspicious of attempts to pass the buck on to consumers, removing all responsibility from consumers and insisting that the realm of consumption remains a seemingly benign and apolitical arena is not a useful way forward either. The considerable consumer inertia in response to scandals in the UK, such as the one involving Boohoo – which saw the ultra-fast fashion company accused of sourcing its clothes from factories with poor health and safety records and paying staff less than the minimum wage – illustrates a need to sensitize consumers to the slavery in their consumption, and to elevate their power to act. This may be framed as calling on consumers to take positive citizenship action (lobbying) or negative action (boycotting). 

It is also important to recognize that consumer-citizens are not unfamiliar with taking action on important issues. For example, the understanding that we have environmental responsibilities as consumers is well rehearsed. It is accepted that “we must place on the consumer at least some of the responsibility for making the economy sustainable,” as Tim Jackson writes in Material Concerns: Pollution, Profit and Quality of Life. Imagine action on climate change that did not include a role for consumers in taking some level of responsibility for their own impact through the consumer choices they make. 

Changing how we consume is a vital link in transitioning to a cleaner and more sustainable society, even though businesses are disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions. It should be no different when we consider modern slavery. 

Moreover, our research does point to an important role for consumers, revealing that they do want to take action – just not on their own. They want to be partners in this modern slavery equation, particularly with business and government. Greater consumer interest, involvement and action over modern slavery is bound to raise more – not fewer – questions about the role and responsibilities of other groups involved, leading to greater transparency. With this in mind, the consumer perspective should be viewed as a useful ally to business and government strategies in the campaign to eradicate modern slavery. 

Deirdre Shaw is a Professor Marketing and Consumer Research at the University of Glasgow. Andreas Chatzidakis is a Professor of Marketing at the Royal Holloway University of London. Michal Carrington is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Melbourne. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)