Ethical Consumerism – The Role of Consumers in Reducing Demand for Trafficked Labor


Anybody who remembers the film ‘Ghosts‘ has probably felt more than a scant uneasiness and discomfort whenever they find cockles [clams] in the supermarket. So too did I when, after watching the movie, I went shopping, haunted by a vast amount of horrifying images and associations that were not easy to get rid of, even amongst the shelves. The film (released in 2006 and directed by English documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield) is based on an true and very unhappy story about two dozen illegal immigrants working as cockle collectors in England. But it also puts a spotlight on some of the sectors of the economy where people – many of whom are victims of human trafficking – are exploited severely as cheap and easily manageable labor and in particular how the UK food industry is dependent on an underpaid, exploitable migrant workforce.    

Ghosts – Nick Broomfield 2006

‘Ghosts’ re-enacts the events leading up to the 2004 Morecamp Bay tragedy in England where at least 21 illegal Chinese workers drowned in the in-coming tide while picking cockles off the Lancashire coast. The film portrays the situation of a woman, Ai Qin, who, in desperation to earn money to feed her son in China, is smuggled to Europe in order to work in a meat-packing factory. Struggling to raise money to pay off her debt, Ai Qin is desperate for work. A gangmaster ‘helps’ find work for her and a group of other illegal immigrants, but the jobs are precarious, exhausting and underpaid day jobs that that include work at a meat factory, gathering apples, picking spring onions and preparing meals for one of the big English supermarket chains. When the gangmaster – who is himself in a desperate need for money – eventually gives her the ‘choice’ between taking a job in a London massage parlor or go off for a spot of cockling she chooses the latter, although heavily underpaid and with her life at risk. 

As for myself, back in the supermarket, I didn’t buy the cockles. The fact that I had an idea about the unfair circumstances under which the products I found on the shelf could have been produced made me chose to leave these products aside. While not making this clear to myself on the spot I was in fact exercising ethical consumerism.  


Why ethical consumerism? Playing the game of the economy 

Ethical consumerism is one of the avenues through which it is possible for consumers – as individuals and as a group – to influence the demand for exploited labor. Consumers can act as a counter balance in an otherwise uncontrollable global economy, where the demand for cheap labor is ever present as a result of companies’ efforts to meet consumers demand for ever cheaper goods and services. 

 ‘Consumers of goods are generally not aware if the goods and services they buy have involved trafficking. Unintentional buyers represent the full range of consumers in any society, given the global nature of the world economy ‘ (Rosenberg 2011, Tackling the Demand that Fosters Human Trafficking)   

Examples show that consumer pressure does have an effect on companies’ will to ensure that their suppliers commit to non-abusive labor policies. One such example is the US Taco Bell boycott, where various civil society groups and organizations lead by The Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) exerted public pressure to an extent that Taco Bell agreed to improve working conditions and wages for the tomato-pickers working at the farms supplying tomatoes for the restaurant’s products (CIW, n.d, in Rosenberg 2011). 

Another example is the Uzbek Cotton affair. Reports of workers’ rights violations in the Uzbek cotton industry led to public pressure on companies to stop buying cotton from Uzbekistan. Many European and North American companies responded to this pressure by stopping their trade with Uzbek companies. Although not immediately resulting in improvements of Uzbek workers’ conditions the boycott lead to the formation of the Responsible Cotton Network, set up in 2008 to pressure Uzbekistan to address the issue (Global Compact, n.d. in Rosenberg 2011).  

As noted in a new publication on demand, Tackling the Demand that Fosters Human Trafficking, ‘companies generally do not stock ethically produced products based on altruism. Rather, they do so in search of competitive advantage [Stokes, n.d. Consumers and Fair Trade: lessons from a decade of dramatic growth and growing impact. Washington, DC: TransFair USA.]’.  

But the nature of competitive advantage is shaped by the demand of consumers. Our role as costumers is therefore not to be underestimated when it comes to undermining – or fostering – the structures that support the demand for exploitable and trafficked labor. By changing the nature of demand along ethical lines costumers can exert pressure on companies to engage in undertakings that assure the fair treatment and fair conditions of the workers producing their goods. Companies’ demand for ethically produced goods and services for their costumers will affect other levels of the supply chain – suppliers will be forced to meet labor and human rights standards if this is what the retailer demands.  

Photo from

Consumers can influence companies by changing the nature of their demand, by playing the game of the economy. By demanding goods and services that have been produced according to human rights and labor rights standards consumers can send a forceful signal to retailers that the key to their competitive advantage lies in assuring specific ethical standards of production not in having the cheapest prices at any cost.  

I let my assumptions regarding the ‘cockle-industry’ have the last word before I chose not to buy them. Had I been assured that the cockles I saw in the supermarket had been produced under fair conditions where the workers had received a proper wage, I would probably only have hesitated a while before buying them, thereby sending a signal to the retailer that I, as consumer, prefer certified products, and that there is profit to be had in meeting this demand.  

Resources for Consumers

Consuming ethically however can be a bit of a task: Products do not necessarily indicate whether they have been produced according to ethical standards or not – and many companies do not necessarily have it as a priority to display information about how their products were produced and by whom. There are empowering tools available for consumers wishing to assert their influence and reduce demand for exploited labor and trafficking. These include product labeling and publicly available listings of companies that are directly involved in exploitative practices or make use of suppliers involved in exploitative practices.    

Organizations such as Fair Trade, The Social Accountability Accreditation Service and the Social Accountability International have developed systems of certification that allow consumers to immediately identify, through labeling, if a product has been certified as living up to specific standards.      

Public listings of companies with good practices – or known to use exploitative practices – are also useful resources for costumers wishing to consume ethically, however requiring the consumer to do some research on the items before purchasing as products are not labeled. Such listings include, among others, the Ethical Trading Initiative, the International Labor Rights Forum, as well as the U.S. Dept of Labor: List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor       

For more information on consumer resources and an in-depth discussion of the various ways of addressing demand by means of ethical consumerism see Tackling the Demand that Fosters Human Trafficking (Rosenberg 2011).