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 labeling. Why can’t consumers buy a product labelled “child-labor free?” GoodWeave, a nonprofit member of the Child Labor Coalition, issues labels that help consumers buy carpets (and coming soon other products) that are child-labor free. GoodWeave has strict standards and inspection systems, that reach every worker from the factory to village to home. When they find child labor they eliminate it and provide remediation and long-term rehabilitation for the former child laborers. Their programs go well beyond others, ensuring communities across South Asia are “child friendly” and that all children are going to school and learning. 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 200,000. GoodWeave has transformed the lives of thousands of children in partnership with over 150 brands and retailers. In a few years, we may have several more product lines that we can say with some certainty are child-labor free.
We ask consumers to educate themselves about the intersection of consumer goods and child exploitation. We ask them to support companies that are taking the extra step to eliminate child labor and forced labor. One company that we know well is Divine Chocolate. It works with farmer cooperatives in West Africa to produce Fairtrade chocolate, from locally produced cocoa. Farmers actually own a major share of this company and earn more income which, along with other measures, helps them avoid the use child labor which is rampant in the region’s cocoa production.
We’re a fan of Fairtrade America, also a member of the CLC, because it pays a premium price to farmers for engaging in better labor and environmental practices. Helping farmers prevent child labor and forced labor is one its stated goals and addressing endemic poverty is clearly part of the solution, thanks to committed companies and consumers like you. The incredible difficulty of monitoring remote farms, often hidden under jungle canopies, makes it difficult to say with certainty if products are produced without child labor, but we love that groups are tackling this issue and working hard with farmers at finding solutions. Fairtrade embraces a “continuous improvement” model as it pursues its goal of child-labor and forced-labor free products.
Patagonia is one of several companies that are taking extra steps to produce products through a clean supply chain. How do consumers find such companies? We recommend checking out the efforts of individual companies on line to ensure products are produced responsibly and workers, including children are not exploited.
We love that when they became aware of rampant child labor and forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, many apparel companies began signing the “cotton pledge” promising to avoid buying Uzbek cotton for their clothing. To date, more than 270 companies have made this promise. We generally do not support the use of boycotts, which can lead to deprivation for impoverished rural communities, but when state-sponsored forced labor is in play, we make an exception.
We should note that it’s important that consumers have a critical eye when researching companies, because, as many advocates have noted, some companies talk about “corporate social responsibility (CSR)” but their efforts may not go far enough to address issues of child and forced labor. It can be difficult for consumers to tell the difference between CSR efforts that are “window-dressing” versus those that are substantive.
We also ask consumers to support legislation that helps address the problem. In 2012, California passed the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires large companies to post online info about their efforts to fight human trafficking, slavery, and child labor if the companies are, in fact, engaged in those efforts. The legislation is not a panacea, but it is an important step in the right direction. The CLC and its members have worked on federal legislation that would do the same thing. Unfortunately, the bill has not been re-introduced in the current Congress. We need consumers to call their member of Congress and tell them how important such initiatives are. In the Netherlands, legislation is being considered that would require companies to remove child slavery and child labor from their supply chains—not just report on efforts.
We dream of day when consumers will be armed with the knowledge they need to make informed shopping decisions and that child labor will become a thing of the past. We ask for your help in bringing about these goals by expressing your concerns to retailers and supporting existing efforts. When consumers make it clear that they expect products to be produced without the taint of child labor and child slavery, companies will work harder to achieve that goal.
Reid Maki is the Director of Child Labor Advocacy for the National Consumers League, America’s oldest consumer advocacy organization; he also coordinates the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs. The CLC features 38 groups fighting to reduce child labor in the U.S. in and abroad.