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Smart Phone App-tivism: How You Can Avoid Slave-Made Products This Holiday Season

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Would you buy that Pillow Pet as a gift for your child if you knew it cost another child her freedom? Would the chocolate sprinkles on your holiday cookies taste as sweet if you knew the cocoa were harvested by child labor?

Shopping ethically in a world where nearly everything we Americans buy, eat, or wear is made in a poor, developing country is challenging, to be sure. However, shopping your values may get a little easier. This holiday season a new iPhone app Free2Work gives consumers the opportunity to know how products are made -- whether they enhance the lives of those who worked on them or condemned them to slavery.

This transparency is sorely needed. Americans are the most charitable people in the world, dollar for dollar, in giving to help the world's poor. However, with our shopping dollars, we are unwittingly providing profits to companies who benefit from our ignorance of conditions in their factories and on their farms, and use forced, trafficked and child labor in the production of their goods.

The problem of child slavery is widespread, and well-documented. The International Labour Organization released a global report in May 2010 documenting 215 million child laborers worldwide. Children are producing cotton, bananas, soccer balls, clothing, cocoa, tea and coffee. They toil long hours, are exposed to harmful pesticides, and suffer extensive workplace injuries. Many of them are trafficked or in debt bondage to their employers. Most of them have no access to even a basic education.

Each one of us can make a difference in this problem, by changing our "slavery footprint." It's a revolutionary way to make informed consumer purchases that enable consumer "buy-cotts" for ethically made products. Consumers cooking up their favorite holiday dishes will have access to ratings of key baking ingredients such as vanilla, cloves, cocoa, sugar and oranges. Other company ratings this season include hot toy companies like Fisher Price, LEGO, LeapFrog and Pillow Pets.

Call it Smart Phone app-tivism: an iPhone app that delivers product ratings as you shop. Products receive a letter grade that any school child can understand (A through F) that is based on their protocols to eliminate forced labor and child slavery in the production of their products. The highest grades go to brands that champion a living wage and democratic worker organizations. The lowest grade (F) goes to brands that are doing almost nothing to review or improve conditions of the people working in their supply chain.

This type of activism works. Over the past several years, consumers' concern with their environmental footprint has led major brands and retailers from Walmart to Proctor & Gamble to Toyota to "green" their supply chains. Anti-slavery activists, realizing the success of transparency and consumer pressure in the environmental area, are now bringing these tactics to the issues of modern-day slavery. Using new technology for human rights transparency, the Free2Work iPhone app is a tactic to enable smart activists and conscientious consumers. Though not many of us are capable of undermining the trafficking rings that exploit children, we can change the demand for the products these children make, in no small part fueled by pressure from global retailers and their price wars.

The success of the tactic will depend entirely on its uptake by consumers. However, the trend toward ethical consumerism is real and growing. This holiday season, we as human rights activists are betting on the proposition that across the country, consumers will decide not to become the Grinch Who Stole Christmas for poor children around the world. Instead, we have faith that the spirit of the holidays will become something we realize we all can embody in a number of ways -- in how we give, and what we give, and in the mindful spirit with which we give it.

David Batstone, President, Not for Sale Campaign and Bama Athreya, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Forum.