In school we’re taught slavery happened a long time ago. Africans were stolen from their lands waaaaay back in the day and brought to America to work in plantations.This happened so long ago we didn’t even have the telegraph! Can you imagine? Slavery is a thing of our sordid past and thus relegated to a few dusty and often inaccurate chapters in our history textbooks. With this knowledge it’s easy to think of slavery as something far away from us, something that doesn’t need to be grappled with, right? If you’ve been paying attention to the news you’ll have seen the recent cry for statues honoring slave owners and supporters to be taken down. The truth is slavery’s ramifications are long and far reaching and we are very much still grappling with its effects in this country. While it’s an awful time in our history, it’s still history and has nothing to do with us today.
Or does it?
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending Free The Slaves Fashion For Freedom event in New York City. In preparation for the event I started doing a little research and was horrified by what I found. There are estimated 40 million people enslaved worldwide today. As in right now. As in holy shit literally as I write This. Very. word. Modern slavery is very real and is growing every day. In fact, there are more slaves in the world today than in any other time in history. How is this possible? In a time of interconnectedness where news travels at the speed of a tweet how can so many people be trapped and beyond our reach?
Safia Minney speaks to the rapt crowd. Image courtesy of Free The Slave’s Instagram
This was what the event aimed to explore along with concrete ways to end modern slavery.
Free The Slaves brought together a powerhouse trio of anti-slavery and ethical fashion activists. Safia Minney, founder of People Tree and author of Slave To Fashion. Rebecca Ballard, founder of Maven Women and former labor and employment lawyer for the federal government as well as former nonprofit manager focusing on anti-slavery issues. And Aaron Halegua, an attorney specializing in employment law, who won a landmark case for nail salon workers in New York City
Like any good fashion event, the night began with hors-d’oeuvres and pop up shops. After stuffing my face with free food and scouting the beautiful and ethically made wares the crowd settled in to get to the heart of the evening. Modern slavery and what we can do to stop it. Safia Minney kicked things off with a presentation of her history founding people tree and what she learned while researching her book Slave To Fashion. Seeing photos of modern slaves, hearing their names spoken, and getting a glimpse into their lives was sobering. As fun as food and shopping is, we all knew we were there for a bigger cause and this drove that message home.
Then came the panel discussion. This kind of back and forth is always my favorite part of the evening because I find that the panelists can dive more deeply into the subject and it was obvious from the word go how passionate and knowledgeable our panelists were. These were people who’d been on the front lines, fighting the good fight and they had lots to say about this battle. First, modern slavery takes many different forms from debt bondage to child marriage. Learning this one fact left me stunned. When I imagined slaves I thought of the antebellum South, not women working at my local nail salon. This lack of information is one of the key ways slavery thrives. It operates out of sight from us “decent” people. Yet we “decent” people are the ones who benefit.
The average consumer doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on their clothes, and this effects how much the manufacturer can spend because god forbid they have a narrower profit margin. As Aaron Halegua pointed out, brands want to hit a certain price point because that’s all their customer is willing to pay. When these brands demand that price point from their factories, there are only so many places the factories can cut corners. Materials will always cost x, tariffs cost y, there’s no getting around that. But they can pay their workers less, or take away their breaks, or force them to work over time with no compensation. With little and more often no government oversight factories will do whatever it takes to make clothes cheaply. Safia Minney drove the point home, we as consumers must demand better from our brands. This means not shopping from a brand unless they’ve committed to making sure their workers all along the supply chain is taken care of. This means as consumers we must sacrifice our thoughtless consumption. She washes her car at home and does her own nails because she can’t be sure workers at those establishments are paid fairly.
Slave To Fashion by Safia Minney available here
These small changes add up and as women it’s our responsibility to take action. Rebecca Ballard spoke passionately on the role of women in eradicating modern slavery. As she so rightly said, the fashion industry really is about women. Women do the work, and women consume it. It’s our responsibility as free women to help free our enslaved sisters. This means putting pressure on our government as well to create better laws. In 2010 California passed the Transparency in Supply Chains Act. This act requires companies with over $100 million dollars in gross receipts to disclose how they are fighting slavery in their supply chain. Sounds pretty good, but 8 years later only a fifth of the companies have complied and the government isn’t really enforcing it. We as citizens must demand better from our government as well as our brands.
Many companies say oh sure they’d love to end slavery in their supply chains, but oh geez oh my it’s just too hard, because the supply chains! They’re sooooooo complicated and long. Excuse the language but boo fucking hoo. Aaron Halegua cracked me up when he so rightly noted that companies have no problems with long supply chains when it comes to manufacturing complex technologies. They manage to put together highly sophisticated machinery, overcome language barriers, and do it all in time and on budget when it means a profit for them. The problem is not their inability to end modern slavery, it’s their lack of will to do so.
Image courtesy of Free The Slaves’s Instagram
The evening closed with Flor Molina, a survivor of trafficking and this years Fashion for Freedom Award recipient. She told her story simply. She was a woman with three children to feed and very little means to do so. She was promised a great job in America so she took it. There she was forced to insane hours, live in the factory, unable to talk to anyone, unable to shower, and often abused. She escaped. Her story was not one of victimhood though. She went on to become an anti-slavery activist. She’s been instrumental in passing three human rights laws here in the US, and was even appointed by President Obama to the first ever US advisory council to end human trafficking. As she spoke the energy in the room shifted. You could feel the audience take on the weight of her story. Slavery was not a piece of ancient history, it was not something that happened in a far away place, it was here. In front of us. It is now. Tears were brushed off cheeks as she finished speaking, and I’m not ashamed a few of them were my own.
When confronted with the realities of modern slavery we can’t let ourselves become mired in hopelessness. As free people it is our duty to help our brothers and sisters and doing so is actually pretty simple.
Don’t shop from a company that isn’t open about their supply chain. Sound overwhelming? Use the DoneGood App! They’ve curated a great selection of brands to shop from.
Get Involved. There are great organizations across the world that fight trafficking. You can find them here.
Educate yourself and others. Most people aren’t aware that modern slavery exists let alone how prevalent it is. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken, so shout this info from the rooftops. What are you going to do to end modern slavery?