With the holidays approaching and many Americans scrambling to buy presents, we get many questions from consumers who are interested in shopping responsibly. Newly released data suggests that there are about 40 million individuals in forced labor and 152 million children who are trapped in child labor in the world today. How can one avoid buying products that may contribute to this rampant exploitation?
Unfortunately, there is no clear and simple answer. The supply chains of many companies have multiple layers of production–even reaching into people’s homes–and it’s extremely difficult to monitor this work at all the levels.
Fortunately, there are some tools out there to help consumers. One of the best is the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Sweat and Toil” phone app. It informs consumers about 130-plus goods that are produced with child labor or forced labor. It will also tell consumers which countries produce those goods and then ranks those countries on how well their efforts to reduce child labor are going. You can access this information on your computer by clicking here. More than 1,000 pages of valuable information is contained on the site.
If you are about to go clothes shopping, you can quickly look up which countries have been identified as producing clothes with child labor: Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, and Vietnam. Seven countries used forced labor to produce garments—you’ll have to go to the site or use the app to figure out which ones. It’s actually remarkably easy to use. Please down load the “Sweat and Toil” app now—before you forget!
The site and app will help you learn some of the most common products of child labor. Gold, for example, is produced by child mining in 21 countries. Cotton or cottonseed in 18 countries. Coffee is produced by child labor in 16 countries. The data, unfortunately has some limitations. For the most part, it does not list assembled products. For example, many of the metals and minerals that help make your smart phone and the batteries that help it work are on the list, but assembled cell phones are not.
We get a lot of questions about product labelling. Why can’t consumers buy a product labelled “child-labor free?” The enormous difficulty and expense of monitoring supply chains has made this goal mostly elusive so far. We love to talk about labeling programs that are making a difference. At GoodWeave and Fairtrade, they are encouraging and supporting continuous monitoring and response systems at the production level so they can identify and address child or forced labor risks.
It wasn’t that long ago that there were one million children weaving hand-made carpets under slave-like conditions. That number today is believed to be less than 250,000. The “GoodWeave” label is helping consumers buy carpets that are child-labor free. Goodweave, a nonprofit member of the Child Labor Coalition, has set up extensive monitoring systems and when they find child labor they eliminate it and provide remediation services for the former child laborers. GoodWeave has transformed the lives of thousands of children and is planning to expand their labeling program to other products. In a few years, we may have several more products that we can say with some certainty that they are child-labor free.