Today is Anti-Slavery day, and I’m not sure how many people are going to talk about fashion.
Even before I was running this blog I moved in circles that were vocal about the fight against human trafficking and ending modern slavery. The enslavement of other human beings is and always has been horrific, somewhat ignored and shockingly prevalent. Where there is civilisation, there are slaves.
The thing is it’s very easy to distance this narrative from ourselves; often anti human trafficking organisations take the awareness route for this reason. (‘Did you know that sex trafficking is in your city?” ‘Have you seen the movie Taken? That really happens’)
That is important work don’t get me wrong. After all you can’t change something you don’t know about.
But it also often abdicates us from any culpability. It frames the issue as under our nose (‘yes! Even in your home town!’) whilst still holding it at arms length. It sells the false narrative that we are not operating within systems propped up by slavery by framing it as being solely about sexual exploitation; something we couldn’t be complicit in unless we were directly engaging with buying or selling sex. This narrative tells us we aren’t involved, but that it’s happening near us, and that’s why we should care.
But that is not the reality.
Honestly, this has deeply frustrated me for years now. I remember somewhat knowing (I would call her a very loose acquaintance) one woman who was high up in an anti human trafficking organisation, yet would proudly flaunt the clothes she’d gotten from Topshop, Nike, and multiple other fast fashion brands. ‘Does she not know? Surely she knows. It’s her job to know. Does she just not care?’ These questions circled round and round in my head, until I thought more about the rhetoric often used around slavery and trafficking.
Her organisation framed all trafficking as sexual, there was no discussion of labour. Today 25 million people are in forced labour slavery worldwide and many of them will be making the clothes we’re wearing, harvesting the coffee we’re drinking or mining for our make up, but this was never mentioned. I believe this framing enabled her both to do her job and to merrily keep consuming fast fashion, despite having the privilege and (one would hope) access to the knowledge to do better. It’s surprisingly easy to do one good thing, and use that as a prop to help you ignore all the other areas that need work. Because, I get it, that stuff is exhausting and often it’s easier to tell yourself you’re doing your bit and leaving it at that. But if we’re still contributing to systems and industries that rely on slavery to make as much as possible as cheaply as possible, if we don’t do the work to change those spheres, then we can’t ever see meaningful change. It’s hard work trying to do better (if we have the privilege to do so) but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.
So basically today is a reminder. Your clothes were probably made by slaves.
It’s a really tough pill to swallow, I’m sorry. And I don’t want you to think I’m judging you, because every one of us probably owns at least one thing made my slaves. I know I do, because I haven’t always been consuming sustainably, and when I started to change I wasn’t about to throw out my entire closet and start again in the name of feeling better. That really wouldn’t be sustainable, after all.
When we choose to purchase better, whether that be through buying secondhand or ethical fashion, it does do good. It puts money into the hands of small business owners and takes it away from greedy mega corporations. It provides a living wage, or helps a social enterprise, or empowers someone. But we still live in a society with systemic issues that need to be dismantled on a huge scale, and we can’t achieve that through simply buying more sustainable jeans (although please, do buy the more sustainable jeans if you can!).
This is why I felt so much relief when I sat down with IJM for the first time. They are the largest anti-slavery organisation in the world, having helped rescue over 45,000 people from slavery and oppression worldwide. They have a strong focus on both sex trafficking and bonded labour, and are experts at dealing with issues at their root. Education, awareness and rescue are vital, but so is changing the systems we live within if we want to see real change. They work with governments, law enforcement and legal teams to bring about long term change at the sources of the problem, working to overhaul industries and put better supply chains in place, as well as rescuing and providing aftercare to victims. And that is the holistic approach that we need.
It’s the approach that doesn’t shy away from the idea that we are part of the problem, but uses this to mobilise and advocate for change.
Because, yes, your clothes were probably made my slaves. But that doesn’t mean they have to be.
IJM’s goal, and mine, is for it to be normal for everything in our wadrobes and in our shops to be slave free. So today, on Anti-Slavery Day, why not take on the challenge to wear a #slavefree outfit? This means wearing items that are made by ethical brands, who have consciously investigated their supply chains to ensure there is no exploitation (hint, the big brands don’t even know where there clothes are made, as the factories they inspect sub-contract out to other factories which never get investigated or inspected).
Know The Origin have one of the most transparent supply chains out there, everything is fully traceable. Untouched World manufacture ethically in New Zealand, Article 22’s jewellery is handmade by artisans in Laos, where they earn well over minimum wage in good conditions.
Here’s how it works:
- ASSEMBLE: any #slavefree (ethical) clothing or jewellery you might have, wear it on Anti-Slavery Day and post a picture pointing out the slave free clothes and using the hashtag, demanding that slave free become the new normal
- SPEAK OUT: If you don’t have any ethical clothing in your wardrobe then you’re in the majority, most people don’t. This is an opportunity to talk about the problem of exploitation and encourage both brands and consumers to take action to stop modern slavery. Tag the brands of the outfit you are wearing, and ask them to take slavery out of their supply chains.
- ASK: your friends, family and followers to accept the challenge, and to tag you and @ijm_uk in their #slavefree outfits.