THE BLOG
08/06/2013 02:40 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Mom, There's a Slave in My Shirt

Put on your running shoes. Stay hydrated. Pack lots of snacks -- and aspirin. That's right, back to school shopping is here! One of the most anticipated or dreaded end of summer rituals, depending on your persuasion. It is the age-old struggle of finding exactly the right outfit to make a great impression on the first day of school and simultaneously looking for the best deal. But there is likely one detail you might overlooked -- did a slave make this outfit?

The April 2013 Bangladesh factory collapse that killed 1,129 workers and wounded many others was a wakeup call, forcing mainstream consumers to think about the people making their clothes. Widespread media coverage offered a window into workplace safety to consumers on the other side of the world. But questions remain. If basic workplace safety is absent, then what else is happening? How many hours are they required to work? How much were they paid? Do children work there? The factory collapse also raises another important question: Are workers forced to make our clothes?

Apparel is one of the top industries plagued by human trafficking, also referred to as modern slavery and forced labor. Consider this: In apparel, forced labor is found long before the fabric is sewn at a garment manufacturing factory. It starts as early as the cotton harvest. For instance, Uzbekistan continues the practice of government-organized forced labor in the cotton fields, forcing its citizens including children as young as 10 to leave school and work long hours harvesting cotton. Uzbek parents who refuse face a fine equivalent to two weeks' pay.

That's not all. Forced labor is also found in fabric dying and mining of minerals for zippers and snaps. In fact, it is throughout the multiple tiers of the apparel supply chain, making the likelihood of forced labor in your back to school shopping even greater. The question then becomes what are apparel companies doing about it and where is the best place to shop?

For the ethical consumer, there is help. The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act requires certain retailers and manufacturers (those doing business in California with annual worldwide revenue over $100M) disclose on their website the measures that they have in place to guard against human trafficking within the company supply chain. Since the law came into effect a year and a half ago, most major companies have complied to varying degrees and the information should be readily available on their websites. The disclosure is a fantastic tool for consumers looking to shop smart and vote with their wallets against forced labor.

Parents, this is your very simple homework:

1) Visit three to five websites where you plan to do your back to school shopping.

2) Search for "The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act" disclosure statement. To get you started, we have identified disclosures for some popular back-to-school brands: Gap Inc., Gymboree, J.C. Penney, J. Crew, Macy's, Sears, TJX Companies (TJ Maxx & Marshalls), Target, The Children's Place and Walmart.

3) Compare the statements and policies.

If you are unable to find your favorite brand's policy, want more specifics than you see, have more questions or see room for improvement, be vocal! Let your favorite apparel brands and retailers know that you care and this influences your purchasing. Your kids care too and writing a letter to their favorite brand is a great project to share on their first day of school.

While you are writing your letter, the Global Freedom Center will be working with apparel companies to help them identify and prevent forced labor in their supply chains. We assess and strengthen not only their corporate policies and compliance with the California Act, but we also implement employee and supplier training and propose additional risk mitigation strategies. In short, we help brands put in place the policies that will identify and prevent human trafficking.

Ultimately, your attention and our work will allow companies to make progress so that you never have to hear your kid say "Mom, there's a slave in my shirt." And then, you can focus on scouring the store for the last shirt in your kid's size.

Learn more and support our work at www.GlobalFreedomCenter.org

Thanks to Katie Hart for her help with this article.