How We Can Tackle Child Labor and Modern-Day Slavery in the Fashion Industry

Toronto, Canada: We live in a world with immense complexities. New innovations, advancements in technology and sustainability are being explored every day to solve global problems. But still, there is the mentality that some problems don’t need ‘solving’. Some will argue that climate change is a hoax and others too will argue that sweatshops offer an adequate livelihood to people in the developing world.

My mind just doesn’t compute these justifications at all.

Nevertheless, I feel that being part of conversations that are focused on how we can do things differently in order to encompass positive change is a better way to direct my passion and energies.

In late February, I had the opportunity to sit in on a panel talk on ‘Sourcing for Impact: Addressing Child Labor and Modern-day Slavery’ moderated by Rafik Riad, Founder of the Buy Good Feel Good Expo in Toronto. The panel consisted of Kelly Drennan, Founding Executive Director of fashion education and advocacy group, Fashion Takes Action, Michael Messenger, President and CEO of World Vision Canada, and Toby Heaps, the CEO and Co-Founder of Toronto-based media, research and financial information company  Corporate Knights.

Listening in on the discussion, it was made clear that the issues and complexities surrounding child labor are deep. And it can be tough to navigate the solutions.

Globally, there are 152 million children engaged in child labor, with 73 million of them involved in the worst forms, which include sex trafficking, forced, hazardous and dangerous labor, affecting their mental, physical, social or moral health.

“Sixty percent of these children are actually working in the fashion supply chain,” explains Kelly Drennan founder of Fashion Takes Action. “In Uzbekistan, children are taken out of school, hired on the cotton field and forced to pick cotton. They are also used to cut, dye, sew, and work in environments that constantly expose them to harmful toxic chemicals and pesticides, whether this is on the cotton farms or tanneries in the leather industry.”

How We Can Tackle Child Labor & Modern-Day Slavery in the Fashion Industry
Sanliurfa,Turkey 2011: Seasonal child workers work in the cotton fields instead of going to school. Credit: shutterstock.com

Although there is still a long way to go, the panellists note the observable changes in supply chain transparency currently taking place.

“Many major retailers are now sharing where they are sourcing, and technology will continue to harness the power of reporting,” enthuses Toby Heaps, CEO of Corporate Knights.

There is a push for the Canadian government to regulate the fashion industry and put a stop to human exploitation and social injustices. World Vision Canada’s CEO Michael Messenger notes that “$34 billion of what is currently being imported still falls under being potentially risky goods” but shares in the excitement that change is finally happening.

“Fifty percent of companies are sharing more and 39 percent of CEOs are providing this information before the legislation is in place. In a few months time, there will be action towards this legislation in Canada, which would push for even broader transparency.”

Heaps, however, would like to see more pressure on the industry from the public sector. “It’s working in California, the UK and the Netherlands, and similarly, consumers in Canada should be adamant about not wanting our money invested in goods with modern-day slavery; even our current public pension plan might be linked to investments in child labor.”

Still, across the globe, the fast fashion industry is facing increasing opposition to its unethical practices and business model. Kelly Drennan notes that Fashion Revolution has changed the game with transparency for fashion brands, forcing them to become more accountable as consumers demand answers for #whomademyclothes? The organisation’s Fashion Transparency Index is another great tool, which reviews and ranks global fashion and apparel brands according to how much information they disclose about their suppliers and supply chain policies.

Furthermore, innovation in blockchain technology is proving to completely alter the way consumers will be able to access information and build trust with brands. Provenance in the UK has already started this as a way to give full transparency to consumers.

So how can we, as consumers, push for more transparency in the fashion supply chain?

1. Use your voice! Let your government know you care about transparency in the supply chain. Find ways to talk directly to your parliamentarians either through email, Twitter, Facebook or by sending them a letter.

2. Sign a petition like nochildforsale.ca and promote the cause by forwarding on in an email, tweeting about it, posting on Instagram Stories. Social media is extremely powerful!

3. Find out more about the fashion brands you are supporting. Use websites such as donegood.coknowthechain.org,
goodonyou.eco to educate yourself on brands and their supply chain. Write them a letterasking for transparency. As much as you possibly can, connect yourself to the people who make the item.

As Toby Heaps stated at the event:

“There is no pleasure without conscience. Pause and be conscious when you shop and invest. Questions create discomfort and we want to make it less comfortable in order to move us from the status quo to doing the right thing.”

And, it’s true. It’s not going to be an easy road, and for me, it really hasn’t been thus far, but I’m still willing to follow the road less travelled for more social justice. How about you?

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