It’s the holiday season and finding special gifts to share with those you love is at the top of the “to do” list for many people this time of year. In 2021 in the United States alone, holiday retail sales were estimated at 887 billion U.S. dollars and this year it’s forecast to reach around 942.6 billion. While most of us enjoy shopping for something unique to share with those we care about, it is increasingly important to think about the supply chains behind the food and clothing we are purchasing.
While it seems like every year holiday sales break some kind of record, each year we also learn more about the role modern slavery plays in the global supply chains that feed these record breaking purchases. Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with an increase of extreme weather events due to human caused climate change, have led to an unprecedented rise in labor trafficking around the world. You can read more about these trends in Climate change and modern slavery: the nexus that cannot be ignored and Climate inaction is undermining anti-slavery efforts among many other articles and reports on the subject in the Human Trafficking Search Global Database.
This increase makes it even more important to think about how these millions of fun holiday purchases can sometimes contain the dark secret of modern slavery. Of the approximately 28 million in forced labor worldwide, 17.3 are exploited in the private sector. As a result, it’s possible that enslaved people made the cute pajamas you bought for your sister or the delicious treats you gave your grandchildren for the holiday last year.
Labor exploitation is deeply embedded in the global economy, and governments and corporations must take on the primary burden of rooting it out, including raising supply chain transparency and due-diligence standards, revamping government-led anti-trafficking efforts, and addressing the underlying causes of modern-slavery. But in our global economy, money is our vote, so this holiday season, Human Trafficking Search invites you to consider how your holiday purchases can contribute to ending, rather than perpetuating, modern-day slavery.
While it’s true that changes in individual consumer behavior alone will not solve the issue of labor trafficking and exploitation, by being an informed shopper and using some of the tips below, you can show your support for ethical business practices across the globe and cast your vote for freedom from slavery for everyone. For a comprehensive list of ethical and responsible suppliers across the globe, visit the World Fair Trade Organisation, The Good Shopping Guide, Good on You and the Ethical Consumer.
All products and organizations presented here are vetted to the best of HTS’s ability but we encourage you to do your own research to ensure ongoing commitment to slavery free practices.
According to the Department of Labor’s 2022 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, garments are currently being produced with child and/or forced labor in at least 11 countries. Even facilities in the United States have been investigated for low wages and poor working conditions.
One prominent example is the Chinese government’s ongoing imprisonment and labor exploitation of over a million ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. The scope of this issue presents a challenge for those trying to avoid products rooted in forced labor. In order to grow and harvest large cotton crops for export, the Chinese government relies on the imprisonment and forced labor of the Uyghur people. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a US-based group that advocates for Uyghur rights in China, describes Xinjiang as a “cotton gulag” where prison labor is present in all steps of the cotton supply chain. Unfortunately cotton from Xinjiang accounts for over 20% of global cotton production, and evidence points to cotton originating in Uyghur internment camps pervading the whole global apparel supply chain, making it difficult to avoid when buying clothes.
However, this year the U.S. Congress passed and implemented the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) which compelled the U.S. Federal Government to take significant new actions to prevent goods produced in the Xinjiang region in whole or in part from entering U.S. domestic markets. Since this law has just begun being enforced, we have yet to see how it will impact Xinjiang sourced cotton/apparel over time, but it’s a step in the right direction and will help in the efforts to buy slavery free goods in the U.S. in general going forward.
Towards trying to keep modern slavery out of your apparel purchasing, as you shop, look for brands that work directly with the makers, often small artisans and local factories. In that way you can ensure the supply chain of what you are purchasing is free of forced labor or labor exploitation.
You can also support victims and survivors of human trafficking by purchasing from these suppliers who fund programs or employ survivors directly:
- A wide variety of products ranging from apparel, home goods, jewelry and accessories from Ganesh Himal Trading
- Jewelry, Accessories, Apparel and Home Goods from Revival Goods
- Apparel and Sportswear from Patagonia
- Jewelry, Accessories, Apparel and Home décor from tonlé
- Tees, dresses, and tunics from Elegantees
- “Punjammie” loungewear from Sundara
- Bags, backpacks, and purses from The Shop for Freedom
- Tote bags and pouches from The Tote Project
- Wallets and quarantine essentials from Rethreaded
- Wearable Textiles from Collective Humanity
Global supply chains are murky and little effort to date has been made to trace them beyond the first tier of suppliers. Because of this, many major retailers have no idea who really made their products, what conditions they were working under or how the raw materials were grown and harvested. In 2019 Amazon and Walmart were discovered to be selling towels made with cotton harvested by forced laborers in Turkmenistan. In 2021 a report found that the supply chains of brands such as Target, Walmart and Uniqlo, and Canadian retailers Aritzia and Lululemon, among others were in danger of having cotton from the Xinjiang region in their finished products which could include sheets, pillows, and other home goods.
Instead of big retailers, consider supporting small artists by buying handmade goods from local stores. The AFL-CIO has also published a list of union-made holiday gifts, including board games and sports products. It’s been demonstrated that workplaces that support workers advocating and organizing for themselves are the best insurance for keeping forced labor out of the system. So looking for labor organizations and commitments led by workers, like co-ops can help guide your home goods purchasing.
Alternatively, you can directly support victims and survivors of human trafficking by buying:
- Home décor, bags and baby blankets, hats and changing mats from Sari Bari
- Home décor from Collective Humanity
- Candles and essential oils from Savera and Thistle Farms
- Handmade greeting cards from Good Paper
- Children’s toys and stocking stuffers from New Creation
Chocolates and coffee
Chocolate and coffee make great gifts, but ensuring that they are slavery-free is crucial and can be hard. Despite claims of ethical sourcing practices, brands like Mars, Nestlé and Hershey have so far failed to live up to their promises to eradicate child labor in their supply chains. Both the cacao and coffee bean harvesting processes are notorious for labor exploitation. While traditional certification schemes like Fairtrade may not be entirely reliable, a Fairtrade certification is at least a nod in the right direction and can show retailers that fairtrade is a consumer priority, thus helping build buying momentum in that direction. You can look to organizations like the World Fair Trade Organization’s Fashion Catalog for a list of companies selling approved products.
We recommend looking for brands that source directly from farmers and stress their commitment to fair labor practices. Tony’s Chocolonely is unique in its mission to eradicate slavery in cacao supply chains worldwide. You can find a list of other slavery-free chocolate brands here.
Many coffee shops now stock fair trade and direct-source coffee. Three stores in particular have dedicated themselves to fighting human trafficking with innovative new business models. You can visit them in person or order products online at:
- A Second Cup in Houston, Texas
- The Freedom Café in Durham, New Hampshire
- Palate Coffee Brewery in Sanford, Florida
Both gold and diamonds are high-risk materials when it comes to labor exploitation. Children and indigenous peoples in particular have been enslaved, displaced, and killed by mining operations around the world, including in situations of armed conflict. Some ethical mining certification programs have also come under fire in recent years, so ensuring that your jewelry is exploitation-free is not easy. Buying vintage pieces or synthetically produced diamonds is one way to ensure that your purchase is not directly contributing to environmental or human rights abuses.
You can also directly support victims and survivors of human trafficking by buying:
- Birthstones and beaded pieces from Ethicgoods
- Simple and elegant hoops from Purpose Jewelry
- Gold, silver, and pearl-based jewelry from Starfish Project
- Jewelry from UNCVRD Jewelry
- Jewelry from Trades of Hope
- Colorful silver necklaces and earrings from Her Future Coalition
For more ways to shop ethically all-year round, the World Fair Trade Organisation, The Good Shopping Guide, Good on You and the Ethical Consumer offer a comprehensive list of ethical and responsible shopping in various industries.
Upcycling and Resale
Finally, another way to ensure your purchasing and consuming habits are ethical and responsible is to upcycle or visit vintage/antique and second-hand shops. There is a growing market of online stores available as well as the traditional local thrift and vintage/antique stores. There are also online marketplaces for individuals re-selling all kinds of goods such as Vinted, Threadup and Depop as well as larger platforms like Ebay and Facebook Marketplace.
Make sure to share this shopping guide with your friends and family and spread the cheer of slavery free ethical holiday shopping. That is a sure way to make the season more bright for everyone!
Brendan Hyatt is a Research Fellow at Human Trafficking Search and a recent graduate of Grinnell College. In the past, Brendan has researched climate change and disability inclusion for the Environmental Law Institute and far-right extremism for the Stimson Center. Twitter: @BrendanHyatt4
Angela Khalife is a Research Fellow for Human Trafficking Search. She holds a BSc in Security and Crime Science from the University College London and is currently pursuing a Master of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at SciencesPo Paris.