It is not up to consumers to police modern slavery


It is not up to consumers to police modern slavery

Businesses and governments should take the lead in rooting out abuses

Sarah O’Connor

In 2019, Theresa May, then the UK prime minister, warned that a “global epidemic” of modern slavery was spreading through the supply chains of the food we eat and the clothes we wear. “The most powerful voice of all,” she urged, “belongs not to business or government, but to the consumer. It is customers who ultimately decide whether a business succeeds or fails — and if enough of us turn our backs on companies that exploit forced labour, modern slavery will cease to be commercially viable.”

It is a seductive argument. You don’t have to look far to see people gobbling up goods and services that are suspiciously cheap without asking questions. But the average consumer is not in a position to understand the role of labour costs and other inputs in something like a piece of clothing. Even if they are, buying more expensive products does not guarantee they have been made by workers who were treated fairly. “Luxury brands produce in a lot of the same factories [and] some luxury brands are terrible in terms of what they’re doing,” says Thulsi Narayanasamy, a labour rights expert at the UK’s Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

To complicate things further, some of the cheaper brands have better supply chain policies than most. When demand for clothes plunged last year because of the pandemic, low-price fashion retailers H&M and Inditex chose to pay for orders already produced or in production, while many others cancelled payments and pushed the pain down the supply chain...

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