Sustainable fashion is fast becoming more than a sustainability buzzword.
To understand just how sustainably made a fashion item is, brands and retailers need to examine their supply chains to highlight any potential risks such as modern slavery.
UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7 is explicit in highlighting the importance of eradicating forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking to achieving the ending of poverty, protection of the planet, and ensuring peace and prosperity to all by 2030. If this is to be achieved, brands and retailers must combat social risks within the fashion industry; an industry that the Walk to Freedom Foundation has identified as second only to technology in modern slavery risk.
Efforts to tackle modern slavery are complicated by the fact that it is a ‘hidden’ problem, and quantifying its prevalence is difficult. For example, current estimates of modern slavery victims range from around 25 million to more than 40 million people, and it is particularly difficult to accurately estimate the number of victims in countries where there is known to be a heightened risk.
The achievement of a sustainable fashion industry requires a focus on both environmental and social footprints, and to date, efforts to tackle social risks remain less developed.
Defining modern slavery
It is difficult to define modern slavery, and it can apply to a variety of different issues including forced marriages and forced labour. As a result, the human rights organisation Anti-Slavery have established four criteria for determining whether someone is the subject of modern slavery:
Is the individual being forced to work – through coercion, or mental or physical threat?
Is the individual owned or controlled by an ’employer’, through mental or physical abuse, or the threat of abuse?
Is the individual being dehumanised, treated as a commodity, or bought and sold as ‘property’?
Is the individual physically constrained, or are restrictions placed on their freedom of movement?
Developing a sustainable fashion industry: Managing modern slavery risk
Efforts to tackle social risks are less developed than those aiming to combat environmental challenges, and a considerable amount of work is needed to continue raising awareness of social risks and driving change within the fashion industry. For larger organisations, there are several pieces of legislation to which compliance is required (e.g. UK Modern Slavery Act, 2015; Californian Transparency in Supply Chains Act, 2010), however most set a minimum threshold below which organisations are exempt. Additional pressure may be exerted from the consumer base, and those organisations supplying other retailers may also be contractually obliged to engage with social risks (e.g. through supply chain visibility).
However, organisations that are at the forefront of tackling modern slavery are pushing beyond what is legally or contractually required, and creating their own solutions to social risks, often by working collaboratively with other businesses, NGOs, and political bodies. The topic is inherently emotive, and it is important that brands are first clear in establishing their internal policies and procedures. Once this has been achieved, a vital step is to gain a more in-depth understanding and visibility of the entire supply chain, assess modern slavery risk, and work with suppliers to ensure the implementation of social best practice.