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Can Social Media End Modern Slavery?

Coffee-drinkers and cosmetics-users can't just wash their hands of forced labor by firing off an angry letter and realigning their brand allegiances.

How many people does your lifestyle enslave? A new website and mobile app will calculate your "slavery footprint" based on how many forced laborers around the world likely harvested the beans in your coffee or mined the mica in your eyeshadow.

The sleekly-designed application—which queries users on their consumption habits, then helps them draft letters to companies addressing the slaves in their supply chains—is aimed squarely at the socially-minded social media user accustomed to the instant gratification of accessing e-activism in her back pocket. Sign a petition! Tweet a hashtag! End modern slavery in 11 easy steps! The technological approach is already a hit: After launching yesterday morning, overwhelming traffic crashed the website for much of the day.

Now back online, the application has some clever built-in features to manage some of the more problematic aspects of keypad activism. While the app helpfully identifies the forced labor products sitting in your garage, coffee grinder, and medicine cabinet, it can't tell you how to buy your way out of the slavery supply chain by switching from Starbucks to Caribou or Revlon to MAC. "We wanted to make the application brand-agnostic because this is an issue that is affecting everyone,"says Ambassador Luis CdeBaca of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, who helped develop the app. "There is not a company out there that isn't tied up in this in some way."

That feature tends to complicate the human slavery accountability process for consumers. Coffee drinkers and cosmetics users can't just wash their hands of forced labor by firing off an angry letter and realigning their brand allegiances, and that's a good thing. "We're not interested in rewarding or punishing one particular brand right now," says Justin Dillon, the developer behind the app. If only select companies were to eliminate slavery from their supply chains, that could create a problematic economy for non-slave products. Instead, the Slavery Footprint hopes to build enough pressure around the issue to bring about industry-wide change. Dillon says he wants to avoid creating a market for "boutique" products built without slave labor that are only accessible to well-to-do consumers with "more discretionary income to spend on ethically-sourced products." If any particular company pledges to eliminate its reliance on slave labor in its production process, "that's great," says Dillon, "but there are still 27 million-plus people in these conditions. We don't want to give anyone the opportunity to just jump off the bus."

Even radical lifestyle changes are unlikely to cut any consumer's Slavery Footprint down to zero. As the application makes clear, slave labor is so pervasive in the American lifestyle that eliminating all the produce, transportation, and electronics that employ forced laborers is impossible (even the smartphone you use to access the application was likely built with slave labor). "You're going to be touched by slavery no matter what, and I think that's actually a liberating thing," says CdeBaca. "We can no longer say that this is someone else’s problem. I don’t have a maid in my basement that I’m abusing," CdeBaca says, but he does "eat shrimp that contributes to people being enslaved in Thailand and Malaysia." The point came home to CdeBaca while sitting in a business meeting about the project, when he realized that everyone in attendance was using smartphones and wearing cotton shirts. "If there was shrimp laying around," CdeBaca says, "we probably would have eaten it."

American consumers aren't currently equipped to eliminate their contributions to modern slavery, so the app's developers hope a heightened awareness of that fact will be powerful enough to spark change. With the app, consumers are empowered to inform companies: "I'm in the store, looking at your product, thinking about slavery," CdeBaca says. "My activism is more judo than karate," Dillon adds. "Almost everything we consume is made with slavery. Why not try to use the benefits of those products to actually fix the problem?"

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