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Data Control Could Stop Slavery in Apparel Supply Chains

Slavery is still rife in the apparel industry, but new legislation in the U.K. puts the onus on big companies to put an end to forced labor or risk losing out on business.

The Modern Slavery Act, which came into effect on Apr. 1, mandates that all British companies with a turnover of at least 36 million pounds ($50.9 million) publish evidence of steps taken to ensure there is no slavery or human trafficking in their supply chain.

But as Tim Wilson, co-founder and director of Historic Futures, pointed out, today’s global supply chain is so complex that most brands and retailers are exposed to modern slavery as a result of the products they sell—and not knowing is no longer an acceptable excuse.

“Supply chain mapping is one recommended action. However, this can be a huge challenge for many brands who have limited knowledge of—let alone access to—the suppliers operating deep within their supply chains,” Wilson offered, noting that it takes a lot of time and effort to manually gather the data needed. Plus: “Passing the responsibility on to tier one suppliers only shifts the effort needed onto them and adds uncertainty about reliability.”

That’s why Historic Futures recently launched String3, an online tool that fills in the blanks for brands and retailers by asking questions of their suppliers (and their suppliers’ suppliers, and so on) about where and how their products are made. This helps companies to take control of the data in order to map their supply chain and develop a risk framework.

“Asking questions about the most high-risk products means companies can quickly assess which are exposing them to the greatest risk and which they need to worry less about,” Wilson added.

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That echoes something Sarah Kerrigan, senior human rights analyst at global risk advisor Verisk Maplecroft, mentioned in a Sourcing Journal op-ed late last year.

“By assessing the inherent risk exposure of their supply chain—based on the country of operation and sector of activity—they can prioritize and target interventions,” she wrote, continuing, “By evaluating existing management systems, organizations can look to strengthen their supplier relationships and find new ways to define and share responsibility throughout the supply chain.”

She also stressed the need to capture specific data on migrant workers—a group she said is highly vulnerable to modern slavery.

Last week, Primark announced it would increase factory inspections in Turkey to ensure Syrian refugees who don’t have a legal right to work aren’t being exploited, after a Business and Human Rights Resource Center report revealed the fast-fashion chain was employing illegal workers.