Consumers Create the ‘Demand’ in Modern Slavery ‘Supply’ Chains

Michal Carrington, Andreas Chatzidakis, and Deirdre Shaw

To date, efforts to tackle modern slavery have predominantly focused on factories, farming, production, human trafficking, and in some cases, retailers. The focus of this gaze has largely rendered the consumer, like the slaves in these supply chains, as invisible. Yet, consumers are a critical stakeholder in the perpetuation and eradication of modern slavery globally. Why? Because consumers are at the very pointy end of the supply chain—they create the ‘demand’ for which modern slaves are used to ‘supply’.

The importance of consumers in tackling modern slavery, particularly localised forms of slavery, was not lost in the development in of 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act. Indeed, consumers are identified as one of the key stakeholders in the Act. Specifically, the UK Modern Slavery Act charges consumers with the critical roles of reporting instances of modern slavery—such as trafficked and enslaved sex workers in the UK, and of boycotting products and services they know or suspect of being produced by slave workers.

An important assumption of the role given to consumers in the UK Modern Slavery Act is that they acknowledge the slavery that taints the vast majority of products they purchase and consume, and that they care enough to do something about it. This assumption is seriously flawed. Demand for products and services of slavery has not abated despite the launch of the Act, responding Modern Slavery statements by organisations, and significant media attention.

In research we recently conducted with consumers in the UK, we discovered that one of the key challenges is getting consumers to acknowledge modern slavery even though they can’t see it – or recognize it for what it is if they can.

A Slave or Not a Slave?

An initial step in either reporting or boycotting the products of slavery is to identify slaves as being enslaved. We found that consumers employ a range of self-determined ‘rules of thumb’ to categorise individuals or groups of people as either ‘slave’ or ‘not slave’—such as assessments of the person’s ability to exercise free will, choice, and to speak-up for themselves to determine the voracity of claims to ‘slavehood’.

“The difference is for a child – somebody has to stand up for the children that have nobody to speak for them…While a grown man who is washing a car in a hand car wash – they have other options they can explore. They are earning a bit of money, they’re happy with that. They have choices and they feel like this is the better option for them. So, I don’t classify it as modern slavery”.

For example, a common technique for the consumers in our study to categorize ‘slave/not-slave’ is to empathise and imagine what life is like for these people. Putting themselves (or their children) in the shoes of child slaves largely results in the categorisation of ‘slave’, as they imagine themselves to be voiceless and choiceless, completely vulnerable and open to abuse and misuse.

In contrast, however, attempts to empathise with adult victims often elicits a very different response, as it is assumed that these adults can speak up for themselves if they want to – just as the consumers in our study imagine they would in a similar situation. Thus, adult victims are commonly classified as ‘not slave’, and ‘not slaves’ are not legitimate causes for concern, obligation or action.

To Act or Not to Act?

To recognise the slavery…is not enough to nudge the consumers in our study into action – such as reporting or boycott. To act upon this recognition requires an intense feeling of moral obligation, an assessment of: is this person morally worthy of concern and action? The moral status of a slave can be diminished when they are ‘othered’—perceived as possessing moral sensibilities different to our own.

“I don’t really feel anything about it. I forget about it. There are so many stresses going on in your own life.”

For example, to our consumer informants, slavery that can be deemed a cultural practice—such as assumptions around sex slavery in some Asian countries, may be assessed to be of low moral imperative because the moral frameworks in this foreign culture are seemingly different from one’s own. What is not okay here (for me), is okay over there (for them). Without a sense of duty or obligation—there is no consumer action.

Consumers as a Key Stakeholder in Modern Slavery

In contrast to state-sanctioned slave markets of past, there is no legal ownership of modern slaves making it harder to recognise, record and track the movement of slaves within global markets. And with a growing global population providing access to large pools of surplus labour, slaves come cheap in the contemporary world.

Modern slavery is a multi-stakeholder problem that requires a multi-stakeholder approach, and one of the key stakeholders is the consumer. Yet, on the whole, consumers—as the ‘demand’ side of the modern slavery equation—continue to embrace a seemingly insatiable demand for fast, cheap goods and services, irrespective of the conditions under which those products/services were produced.

So, how do we make the invisible suffering within modern supply chains visible to those who drive demand? A first step is to raise awareness of modern slavery to the point where consumers can no longer deny all knowledge of the slavery tainting their consumption, categorise the enslaved as ‘not slaves’, or shut down acknowledgement of moral obligation to act.

While shifting consumer demand is a vital step in the fight against modern slavery, it is important to also recognise that consumers are not the only players fueling the modern slave trade. We must also resist attempts to put a disproportionate amount of blame on their shoulders. NGOs, national governments, businesses, and transnational organisations all need to recognise this global issue and join together to take action.


Michal Carrington is Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne, Australia. Michal researches in consumption ethics, business ethics, and consumer culture. Her research is published in a range of international journals, including European Journal of Marketing, Marketing Theory, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Business Research. Michal has published a book and book chapters, as well as giving invited talks on consumer and marketing ethics. Prior to entering academia, Michal spent almost a decade working for Unilever in Australia and the UK.

Andreas Chatzidakis is Professor in Marketing at Royal Holloway University of London. Andreas is a Professor at Royal Holloway University of London, which he joined in 2007, after completing his PhD at University of Nottingham. His doctoral research was focused on social psychological and attitudinal models of consumers’ “ethical” choices such as buying Fair Trade products and recycling. Since then he has become more broadly interested on the intersection of consumption with ethics and politics drawing from diverse disciplines such as sociology, human geography, gender studies and psychoanalysis.

Deirdre Shaw is Professor of Consumer Ethics and Sustainability at University of Glasgow. Deirdre has researched the area of consumption ethics throughout her career, publishing on the subject in a range of international journals, contributing to books and non-academic publications, giving invited talks, teaching, supervising PhD researchers and advising policy, business and third sector. She is Associate Director for the University of Glasgow Centre for Sustainable Solutions and Consumer Ethics section co-editor for Journal of Business Ethics. Her research projects include: Consuming Modern Slavery