Ethical consumerism: calculating your “slavery footprint”

Have you ever calculated your “slavery footprint”? When we use the term “slavery”, most Americans tend to think of something from a school textbook about the Civil War era. Sadly, slavery is alive and well in the modern world, and it’s lurking in places you might not think to look for it.

Take, for example, the clothes you wear. Do you know where they came from and how they were made? There’s a very good chance they were manufactured in a third-world sweatshop from cotton or leather harvested by workers who are paid a ridiculously low wage for their work (and may even be children pulled out of school to go to work). Or how about your food: that cup of coffee you enjoy each morning may be the result of slave labor to pick and process the beans on a farm in Brazil.

While slavery is technically illegal across the globe, that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent; the SumAll Foundation, which analyzes data and create reports for charities and social justice, estimated this year that there are over 27 million slaves in the world today. (In other words, there are more slaves in the world today than there were in 1860, when the estimated slave count stood at 25 million.) As profiled by The New York Times in March, a snappy infographic breaks down the numbers of the modern slave trade, pointing out that first-world consumerism is a driving force behind much of the modern slave trade.

Calculating your “slavery footprint”

While the numbers are troubling, it’s been hard to grasp the impact of modern slavery on the average American household until now. Made In A Free World, which works to engage consumers with an end goal of eliminating slavery, launched an interactive website called My Slavery Footprint, which offers users a way to input personal data and find out just how large their “slavery footprint” is in connection to what they buy, eat, wear, and use on a daily basis. The questionnaire covers topics like food, clothing, consumer electronics, and sporting goods.

The goal of the site isn’t to make you feel bad, but it probably will. After clicking through the questionnaire, the site calculated that a total of 53 slaves from countries like Brazil, China and Pakistan contributed to my daily lifestyle. 53? I’m not sure I interact with a total of 53 people on a daily basis. That’s a staggering number, and one that elicits a little pitter-patter of shame when I realize how terrible my consumer spending habits truly are.

Or are they?

Here’s the trouble with these types of questionnaires: while they’re a great place to start, they rarely capture the whole picture. There are a few reasons why I take issue with the My Slavery Footprint stats. For starters, some of the data presented on the site seems faulty. In a piece for Forbes.com published in January, Tim Worstall argues that the site doesn’t have all of their technical facts straight regarding the reserves and mining of coltan, an ore from which tantalum is extracted to make capacitors for electronics.

While it’s true that coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo contributes heavily to world supply and that human rights abuses there are off the charts, it’s also true that a huge chunk of the world’s mined tantalum production in 2009 came from Australia (12.1%), Brazil (26.9%) and parts of Africa excluding the DRC (44.3%)–a fact My Slavery Footprint neglects to mention. Once you start stretching the stats, it hurts your overall cause. (To be completely fair, Worstall also cites Canada as a leading producer ahead of the DRC, but in 2009 that country produced just 3.7% of the earth’s mined tantalum, compared to the DRC’s 13%.) (Numbers courtesy of the 2009 minerals yearbook from the United States Geological Survey)

Second, there’s the rather vague way My Slavery Footprint actually collects your data. For example, when the site asks about your wardrobe, it asks only for the number of items of clothing you own broke down by tops, pants, jackets, shoes, and so forth. Since the site doesn’t ask for further information, such as the country of origin or the materials used, a large wardrobe results in a larger slavery footprint. Basically, the site doesn’t differentiate between a pair of Nikes and a pair of Toms, so someone who buys ethically crafted clothing made from organic fair trade cotton gets the same score as someone who buys leather goods or lots of mass-produced items from factories in China. 

Third, upcycling is left completely out of the loop, so if you’re getting your clothes, electronics or sporting goods second-hand (which many of us do, particularly in this economy), there’s no way to calculate a reduced footprint based on secondhand purchases versus new consumer goods. And if owning a bike contributes to a higher score via owning a piece of sporting equipment, there’s also no reduction in score for using said bike in place of a car to run daily errands, which theoretically would use higher amounts of items like rubber, certain metals and petroleum.

The site sort of kind of admits that your results are largely based on “assumptions”, when it shows you the five responses that most affected your overall footprint. But it’s still pretty vague. For example, my result shows that marking “body wash” as an item in my medicine cabinet contributed to a higher slavery score. But there’s nothing to say what brands I’m buying, how they were sourced, or where they were produced–all crucial pieces of information for a more well-rounded score.

How to put those numbers to good use

An essential part of data collection and processing involves making sense of the numbers. While I don’t think that My Slavery Footprint necessarily does a very good job of calculating your score, and I wish that the site employed more specific questions, it’s a great start to understanding the connection between consumerism and modern slavery. And if you’re willing to dig a little deeper into the factoids behind the numbers, you can find some really easy ways to shrink your footprint.

For example, if you’re a fashionista, consider upcycling new fashions from thrift stores and shopping through retailers who are making strides toward a more ethical supply chain. (I’m going to be posting more about both of those topics later in the month.)

If food contributes highly to your score, look for more fair-trade and ethically sourced items. For example, if you’re a hard-core chocolate addict, purchase bars made from fair-trade cocoa beans. My husband just bought me a big stack of bars from Theo Chocolate for our anniversary, and on top of using fair trade cocoa I saw that one of the bars helps support World Bicycle Relief, an organization that supplies locally assembled bicycles to students, entrepreneurs and health care workers in rural Africa. Talk about a cool way to multitask your ethical impact, huh?

I’m going to have more detailed posts throughout the month of June about ethical fashion, upcycling, and how you can alter your shopping habits for a greener (and more socially conscious) footprint. So be sure to check back later to see those posts!

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6 comments / Add your comment below

    1. I know my cheap-chic clothing habit can be altered–that’s probably the biggest ding for me, buying stuff from stores like Walmart. Better to save up and get something nicer anyway!

    1. Aw, thank you!! I’m trying to adjust my shopping habits…it’s a hard process after years of mindless buying. But I’d like to think I get better and more informed with each passing month!

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