Assessment, awareness…alleviation?

Tackling modern slavery (effectively) is a minority practice in pursuit of dominance

By Gems Gordon

Just over 20 months ago the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) came into effect in the UK. It was widely hailed as a timely piece of legislation to address the (almost anachronistic) problem of slavery and human trafficking in the 21st century. By targeting supply chains, the act aims to ensure that businesses neither fuel demand for slave/forced labour, nor put consumers in a position where they purchase goods produced by workers under duress (McClean, 2015).

A recent review on the impact the MSA has had on business engagement extracted some interesting findings. The legislation appears to have spurred many organisations into action, boosting understanding and awareness of supply chain risk issues through a focus on improved risk assessment frameworks. However, such engagement hasn’t translated into remediating action to the extent that might be expected. We can intuit some likely reasons; time, financial constraints, and appreciating that honing risk assessment skills demands fully understanding the problem of slavery; its appearances, its financial and socio-cultural rationale (Gold, 2015).

Taking a step back, it’s heartening to consider that this momentary pause on the cusp of change-making is not representative of the momentum in the movement en masse towards achieving ethical and transparent supply chains. Pressure in both competitor and consumer environments play a role in creating fertile grounds for this final change-making phase to be both the obvious and imperative last step to eradicate injustice at every supply tier.

Successful social justice movements (civil rights, gender equality) result in a pocket of society radically shaking up the common consensus across the world and introducing a new social norm. Let’s consider social influence factors at play that can subtly cause society’s tectonic plates to shift to a new status quo, and how established ethical brands (minority groups) are facilitating this.

Social norms are the rules and standards that are understood by members of a group which guide behaviour (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). They are perceptions of what is common behaviour in a particular context, i.e. racist opinions are heavily frowned upon and it is customary to avoid eye contact in an elevator. Schultz et al. (2007) demonstrated the power of norms in a Californian community when they informed people of the average energy consumption figure in their area. Consumption rates were subsequently altered to veer towards this fabricated figure– people either increased or decreased usage to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and match their neighbours. Social norms are slow to change, but once they do, they tend to remain stable. Minority groups strive to see their own social norms absorbed by the majority.

The recent surge in veganism across the USA and UK illustrates some social influence tenets. Although the vegan lifestyle is adopted for nutritional or ecological reasons, advocacy for improved animal welfare – namely the abhorrence of ‘animal slavery’ in food and textile industries - is a common principle, with the abolition of this practice held by many vegan consumers as their motivational objective. This month, global business news publication Quartz wrote a feature on how ‘the vegan movement’s brain finally outgrew its heart’ and ‘morphed into one of the biggest disruptors of the American food system.’ It’s interesting to note that these vegan advocates and start-ups who broke into the mainstream psyche and subsequently overhauled the industry reflect some of Crano’s (2012) rules for a successful minority influence.

  1. The ‘us’ factor – the need to be accepted as in-group, even though you are a minority. It was a clever move to emulate the aesthetic of the in-group omnivorous products currently on the market; Perfect Day (cow-free milk), Beyond Meat (plant-based meat), and Hampton Creek (eggless condiments).
  2. Be persistent - neither retreat nor compromise. Other industry groups have described the vegan advocates as shrewd, savvy and motivated.
  3. Be consistent – credibility with a clear message is key. The core message of these American vegan advocates has remained the same since its conception in 2001.
  4. Be unanimous - everyone in the minority needs to show solidarity. Absolutist and pragmatic perspectives clashing in the past have been divisive and slowed progress for animal rights issues in earlier decades.

Clothing and shoe companies espousing the importance of an ethical supply chain (People Tree, Veja) are realising that categorically matching their big name high street competitors allows them to operate as more closely comparable ‘in-group’ mainstream brands, rather than being associated with ‘alternative’ consumers. The intolerance of modern slavery is a well discussed consumer social norm in relation to how it threatens brand reputation and incurs financial losses when intermittently exposed. In 2014, Carrefour, Tesco and Walmart sold prawns produced with slave labour and succumbed to public pressure to remove this supplier’s product from their shelves (Hodel at al. 2014). ‘Minority group’ companies should not be underestimated as industry change-leaders striving for dominance who are usurping social norms around ethical corporate conduct. Even without seeking to influence competitors in the market, a smattering of ethical brands are pushing for more transparency and reform by contributing to the societal and industrial shift in what ‘business as usual’ should look like, thus waving the flag for the MSA.

“Influencing the debate is not our primary goal. We simply want to set an example”

Sébastien Kopp & François Morillion of Veja -ethically and ecologically grounded sneaker makers.

Gems Gordon, Social Psychologist

References: Cialdini, R.B. & Trost, M.R. (1998). Social Influence: social norms, conformity and compliance. In D.T. Gilbert, S.T. Fiske & G. Lindzey (Eds.) The Handbook of Social Psychology, Fourth Ed. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, pp 151-192.

Crano, W.D. (2012). The Rules of Influence, NY: St Martin’s Press

Gold, S., Trautrims, A., & Trodd, Z. (2015). Modern slavery challenges to supply chain management. Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, 20(5), 485-494. Hodal, K., Kelly, C., & Lawrence, F. (2014). “Revealed: Asian slave labour producing prawns for supermarkets in US, UK”. The Guardian, Tuesday 10 June 2014. McClean, N. The Modern Slavery Act 2015. Scottish Financial News. Retrieved from Purdy, C. (2016, November 13). How the vegan movement broke out of its echo chamber and finally started disrupting things. Quartz. Retrieved from Schultz, W., J. Nolan, R. Cialdini, N. Goldstein & V. Griskevicus (2007). ‘The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms’. Psychological Science, 18, 429-34.