Political consumerism: buying better to free slaves?



Modern slavery is hard to define and quantify, with public understandings of the problem often built through stories presented in news, government reports, awareness campaigns, and entertainment media. The political narrative of modern slavery has traditionally focused on ideal victims (innocent young women), and foreign villains (organised crime gangs), with western governments playing the heroic rescuer. In recent years, consumers have been written into the story through increased attention to the role of consumption and unrestrained capitalism in fuelling labour exploitation.

The efforts of anti-slavery advocacy groups to raise consumer awareness and mobilise consumer activism reflect a growing trend towards the promotion of ethical, or political, consumerism as a solution to modern slavery. The recent introduction of Australia’s new Modern Slavery Act 2018 (and a similar law in New South Wales) highlights the increasing importance of consumers as anti-slavery activists, as the legislation relies on consumers to incentivise corporations to prevent modern slavery in supply chains.

To understand the role of consumer activists in the political narrative of modern slavery, I analysed the depiction of victims, villains, and heroes in anti-slavery awareness campaigns in Australia, the UK and the USA. Campaigns aiming to mobilise consumers to engage in political consumerism use different tactics, but ultimately present consumers as potential heroes within a narrative of redemptive capitalism.

Four types of political consumerism

Anti-slavery efforts focused on mobilising consumer activism reflect four types of political consumerism, identified by Stolle and Micheletti (2013) as: boycotts, buycotts, lifestyle commitments; and discursive political consumerism. Boycotts – the refusal to purchase certain products or patronise specific brands, and buycotts – the politically motivated selection of a particular product, feature most prominently. For example, Stop the Traffik adopted both a boycott and buycott, or ‘dualcott’ (Copeland 2014) approach in their 2016 Easter chocolate campaign, praising supermarket chain Tesco for making the commitment to stock ethically sourced Easter chocolates, while naming and shaming Sainsbury’s for failing to make the same commitment. Other anti-slavery groups have also urged a boycott/buycott approach by providing information through ranked lists of brands, such as World Vision Australia’s ‘ethical chocolate scorecard’.

The provision of information can serve as the impetus for a targeted boycott or buycott, though can also be used to guide consumers making ‘lifestyle commitments’ by prioritising ethics in all purchasing decisions. Australian organisation Baptist World Aid releases an Ethical Fashion Guide each year, and Ethical Consumers Australia has created the Good On You App. Both enable consumers to make ethical purchasing decisions as part of their daily lives, rather than as part of an episodic campaign.

Discursive political consumerism is also evident in anti-slavery campaigns. This involves generating public discussion and debate about consumer practices, rather than establishing specific targets for lobbying. An online survey and App created by SlaveryFootprint.org in 2011, in partnership with the State Department of the USA, embraces this form of political consumerism. The Slavery Footprint survey begins by asking ‘How many slaves work for you?’ Participants answer questions about their lifestyles and consumption habits, with the survey providing information about the exploitation of labour in the production of goods including electronic communication devices, cosmetics, food, and clothes.

Are consumers the problem or the solution?

Ethical consumerism campaigns emphasise the power of consumers’ choices as a force for good. Consumer choices tend to be framed dichotomously as either an ethical choice, or an uninformed choice. While this might imply that a consumer who does not opt for the ethical choice is contributing to the problem of labour exploitation by consuming unethically sourced products, awareness campaigns characterise consumers who do not currently make ethical choices as, at worst, uninformed bystanders.

The declared ignorance of consumers acts as a discursive shield against culpability, and is reflected several times in the campaigns. Stop the Traffik’s campaign website for ethically produced clothing states, ‘… we don’t know if the clothes we wear have been made by someone who has been trafficked’, while World Vision Australia’s ‘Buy Ethical, End Exploitation’ factsheet notes that consumers ‘may be indirectly supporting the use of forced or child labour’.

Citizens are represented as having the power to use consumer demand to incentivise the eradication of forced labour, but they are not condemned for the consumer demand that caused the problem in the first place. Instead they are depicted as potential heroes, able to use their position in the supply chain to exert influence to solve the problem.

Redemptive capitalism or anti-consumerism?

Current approaches to political consumerism as an anti-slavery activist strategy seek to effect change within the marketplace, underpinned by a meta-narrative of redemptive capitalism – the sins of capitalism can be redeemed by the market itself. Consumerism is not problematised by these campaigns. Indeed, the buycott approach establishes shopping as activism. The advocacy group behind the Slavery Footprint survey encourages people not to stop buying, but to #buybetter. The pro-consumerist approach to activism is particularly exemplified through the creation of Shopnate.com.au in Australia, where consumers can ‘Donate to charity for free. Simply by shopping online’. This approach is not specifically an anti-slavery strategy, nor does it necessarily constitute political consumerism. But Shopnate promises consumers that the more they purchase, the more money charities (including anti-slavery organisations) receive, offering another avenue for citizens to connect consumerism with activism. Rather than #buybetter, this could more accurately be described as #buymore to achieve change.

One of the immediate problems with the #buybetter approach is that it grants an ethical free pass to those who can afford to purchase products that are marketed as ‘slavery free’, and thus can cost a premium. A more systemic problem is that a pro-consumerist narrative asks relatively little of consumers with sufficient disposable income to make a ‘slavery-free’ product choice, and demands no greater scrutiny of the capitalist structures that have entrenched inequality leading to worker exploitation.

There is certainly potential for an anti-consumerist approach to work alongside the existing efforts of consumer awareness campaigns. For instance, Stop the Traffik UK suggests supporters hold clothes swapping events with friends to raise awareness about alternatives to the relentless consumption of clothes that are cheaply produced, barely worn and quickly discarded.

As advocacy groups continue to engage consumers in anti-slavery activism, there is substantial scope to examine not only their tactics of mobilisation, but also the framing of consumerism as a solution to modern slavery within either a redemptive capitalism or anti-consumerism narrative.


This blog has been adapted from O’Brien, Erin, 2019. Challenging the Human Trafficking Narrative: victims, villains, and heroes. Oxon: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315717593

 Erin O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Justice, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, and researches political activism, discourse and policy-making on irregular migration, labour exploitation and sex work. She is also the author of The Politics of Sex Trafficking (Palgrave 2013).