Fast Company

How Many Slaves Are Working For You?

A new website and mobile app looks at your purchases and determines the amount of forced labor that's gone into everything you own. The number may surprise you.

It's not easy to be a socially responsible consumer. Even if you buy mostly local products and diligently keep track of corporate environmental footprints, you may still be leaving a trail of slaves in your wake. After all, who do you think is digging up the minerals in your smartphone or picking the cotton for your T-shirts? Slavery Footprint, a new website and mobile app that launched today (the 149th anniversary of the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation) can tell you approximately how many slaves have pitched in to make the goods you enjoy on a daily basis.

The site, created in a collaboration between anti-slavery nonprofit Call + Response and the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, uses a complex algorithm to calculate how many slaves work for you based on a number of questions, including how much jewelry you own, whether you're a gadget geek, what's in your medicine cabinet, and even whether you've paid for sex (you'll just have to check out the site to get the details on that one).

After going through the process, I discovered that there are 101 slaves toiling away for me. That is actually a fairly low number, according to Justin Dillon of Call + Response. "The issue seems far away but the truth is you can't leave your home in the morning without touching something that was made with slavery," he says. In this case, a slave--or forced laborer--is defined as "anyone who is forced to work without pay, being economically exploited, and is unable to walk away."

Call + Response obviously can't take into account the brand name of every product in your home, but the Slavery Footprint algorithm is still pretty detailed--it uses information from the Department of Labor, Department of State, and Transparency International, among other organizations.

But Dillon says the point isn't to make people ashamed of our consumer culture. "I didn't want to create another bummer calculator that only spits out bad news," he says. "I wanted to see how we can help individuals use their lifestyles to end this."

So in addition to the Slavery Footprint site, Call + Response is also offering an app that lets people check in to storefronts (a la Foursquare) to let them know that they want slavery-free products. The app also allows people to directly send letters to over 1,000 brands to demand an end to slavery in their products--and then share the companies' responses to create a crowdsourced database. By taking these actions, users receive Free World Points, which Dillon likens to carbon offsets.

The Free World Points don't exactly take away from the seriousness of the slavery problem, but they do serve as proof that users are at least trying to make a difference. "Success for us means that we've shifted the conversation in the marketplace a little more that makes it easier for corporations to engage in [the slavery issue] in a substantive manner," says Dillon.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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10 Comments

  • Becca

    Why do you have to have a Facebook account to use this app? Insane! I don't choose to do facebook and for that I can't learn more about my slavery footprint?

  • Guest

    I loved this sight, but I am struggling to find resources to actually reduce my slavery foot print and make better consumer choices!

  • Jeremy Burns

    Indeed, the website signup is not working at all. 
    Not even the fb connect link. 

    Sad. 
    Sounded like a great idea to generate consciousness in a viral way. 

  • Anni Bricca

    No matter what browser and no matter what email address I use. the SlaveryFootprint site won't deliver a number, nor will it allow me to sign up. Says I'm already a user, but I'm not. Sad, they are missing the mark and no way to reach them. The site is a fail on my end :(

  • laura

    As I work to teach my middle school students about fair wages and global concerns, I also look for interactive websites such as Spent.org to engage the students during lessons. This slavery footprint website would be a interesting idea for them except for the component regarding sex slavery. I hope the creators would consider making a website that would be student-friendly; I'm sure that most of the site would stay the same, requiring only a few adjustments.

  • John Matejczyk

    The traffic to the slaveryfootprint.org was wildly beyond expectations, from across the globe. We're switching over to servers with about 50 times the capacity, so we should be good to go very soon – tomorrow morning at the latest. Thanks - The Slavery Footprint team.

  • Derek Cook

    "In this case, a slave--or forced laborer--is defined as 'anyone who is forced to work without pay, being economically exploited, and is unable to walk away.'"

    I can definitely see the work without pay part of this definition, but I see a red flag on the "economically exploited."  What does this mean?  What many left-wing, anti-capitalist protesters call "exploitation" actually are jobs that people in developing countries would never have.  They key here is whether this truly is exploitation or the fact that a company pays a wage that, while low compared to U.S. rates, may be perfectly inline with or even better than local wages.

  • simon o'rafferty

    I would expect economically exploited is being paid below what would be considered a national living wage