Modern Slavery and Plastic Straws

Michal Carrington, Andreas Chatzidakis, and Deirdre Shaw

Slavery has had a significant impact on the environment throughout history.1 Despite this, links between modern slavery and environmental destruction have received limited attention.2 Rather, modern slavery and environment exist in distinct, albeit well-established realms. Such distinction and lack of interconnectivity are arguably unhelpful in seeking to mobilise positive action in the fight against slavery. In sharing our research on consumer perspectives of modern slavery, a question often asked has been; if consumers can get behind rejection of plastic straws why not modern slavery?3

Slavery contributes to environmental destruction from the Thai fishing boats worked by slave migrants, draining fish stocks and destroying marine habitats to illegal logging in the Amazon, carried out by indebted labourers to bonded workers in Indian brick kilns, releasing pollutants into the environment.4 The current climate crisis has exacerbated environmental and human vulnerability leaving many susceptible to labour exploitation.5

Much of the work in modern slavery acknowledges the role of consumer demand in driving slavery. Yet, despite this critical role, the consumer remains neglected as a key stakeholder in the fight against modern slavery. The nexus between slavery and the environment is no different in this neglect. Thus, while consumer demand is regarded as driving the conditions leading to slavery and environmentally destructive behaviours, including, seafood as noted above, the role of the consumer has been overlooked. This is significant among claims that such human and environmentally exploitative activities are directed at serving consumer demand for cheap, readily available produce, predominantly in the Global North.6

Given that there are many instances where consumer action has been successful in changing negative externalities, it is important to understand consumer responses to modern slavery. Further, as many consumers have changed their behaviours in response to environmental concerns, including, plastic straws, recycling and buying second-hand, this raises the question; if the environmental impacts of modern slavery were highlighted alongside the human impacts would that make a difference to consumer responses?

In our research we found only a small number of consumers made a link between modern slavery and the environment.7 This was in relation to the production of products and in reflecting on the impacts of individual consumption choices:

“…they don’t care if they have to destroy large fields with trees or other plantations to grow their stuff so yes, slavery is related with damage to the environment in the sense that the demands high, they hire people with very low pay and long exhausting hours working, and they don’t care about destroying people or trees or fields or whatever.”

“I think there’s a lot of, you know: ‘oh I could just, if it breaks I could just buy another one’…I think we need to kind of revalue actually what do things actually cost? You know, what is the actual cost of something? It’s not what you pay in the shop, there’s another cost, there’s an environmental cost there’s also human cost.”

It is important to place this in context; most of the consumers we spoke to were uncertain as to what modern slavery was and, pertinently, where the boundaries between labour exploitation ended and modern slavery begun. Thus, in many responses it was challenging to know if it was modern slavery or labour exploitation that was being referred to:

“…there are also environment damages-that’s what I imagine, I think about, like having parts of big fields like destroyed because of the plantations so, this is the image of a young child working in this cocoa plantation. I would say Africa probably, but I don’t know if that works in other continents as well.”

Against such a backdrop, it is hardly surprising that links between modern slavery and the environment are missing. If consumers do not clearly understand modern slavery is it reasonable to expect them to link slavery and environmental destruction? There is a need, therefore, to raise consumer awareness of the scope and nature of modern slavery and an opportunity to do so in the context of the environment, an already recognised area of concern.

It is, therefore, increasingly important that we make the connections between our consumption and its impacts in a holistic way so that we can see the full picture of the impact of our choices. The global struggle against climate change is also a struggle against human abuses, thus, we argue that it would be more effective to face the challenge collectively, building a shared goal of both environmental and human sustainability. Similarly, such a shared purpose across environment and slavery could, arguably, be more effective in mobilising consumers, enabling them to see the interconnectivity of their consumption choices across shared and interrelated areas of concern.

1 Beinart, W. (2000). African history and environmental history. African Affairs, 99(395), 269-302.
2 Brown, D., Boyd, D. S., Brickell, K., Ives, C. D., Natarajan, N., & Parsons, L. (2019).
3 Carrington, M., Chatzidakis, A., & Shaw, D. (2018). Consuming Modern Slavery.
4 Grono, N. (2015) Perpetrators of modern slavery are devastating our environment too, Guardian
5 Brown. 2019.
6 Bales, K. (2016). Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery. Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World.
7 Carrington. 2018.


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