Understanding the Role of the Consumer in Modern Slavery

27 October 2021
Research Innovation

Dr Michal Carrington  | Senior Lecturer, Management and Marketing, University of Melbourne
Andreas Chatzidakis  | Professor, School of Business and Management, Royal Holloway University of London
Deirdre Shaw  | Professor, Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow

While modern slavery taints many of the products and services we consume as part of our everyday lives, the role of the consumer within modern slavery is not well understood. In this research, “Addressing consumer awareness and (in)action towards modern slavery”, researchers at the Royal Holloway University of London, University of Glasgow and University of Melbourne focused on consumer perspectives of modern slavery, how consumers can be mobilized to act and how, in their role as both citizens and consumers, they can support efforts to eradicate modern slavery.

This is important, as even if unintentionally, in our role as consumers we play a part in modern slavery. This occurs through our everyday consumption choices which, in effect, create demand for such products and services. Think, for example, of the recent Boohoo scandal, involving garment workers in Leicester, UK, or the more ongoing and habitual quests for lower priced services and products, and “just-in-time” deliveries.

Action by business can be driven by negative reputational concerns. Yet, the voice and power of the consumer-citizen is not always collectivized and leveraged effectively. Therefore, it is important to understand how consumer-citizen mobilization towards addressing modern slavery can be supported. For example, consumers play an important role in creating demand for cheap goods and services produced with exploitative labour. By the same token, consumers could also play a critical part in exerting pressure for change through consumption choices and citizen action.

This research examines the ways in which consumer-citizen action directed towards the eradication of modern slavery can be supported. This means positioning the consumer-citizen as a key actor in modern slavery, recognizing and understanding their role and leveraging positive action as part of a collective approach across different stakeholders.

Image from Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre’s report on Consumer attitudes towards modern slavery

Research Approach

In order to examine how the consumer-citizen can be mobilized to address modern slavery, we first undertook a comprehensive review of existing academic research in the area of modern slavery and consumption, as well as the broader area of consumption ethics. The purpose was to examine research that investigates actual behaviour and gaps between attitudes, intentions and behaviours.

Second, we undertook a comprehensive review of academic research into consumer-oriented anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns to identify common methods and outcomes.

Third, we identified and analysed case studies of real-world interventions that attempt to mobilize consumer action on modern slavery. We conducted expert interviews with key individuals from ten case studies across the sectors of agriculture, clothing and services. This enabled the identification of further pathways for effective campaigns and policy that can mobilize the consumer.

Key findings to consider when seeking to mobilize consumer action

A number of key findings emerged from the research and are detailed in our full report. Here we highlight three as examples:

  1. It is vital to not only raise awareness but to also identify clear pathways to action that consumers can take. It can be frustrating and confusing for consumers to have their awareness raised but then not have clear pathways to positive action that they can take. It is also important to consider that appropriate pathways to action may be different for different people.
  • It is important to recognize that consumers are also citizens and that the actions they can take are not restricted to “buy” or “not buy” decisions but also citizen actions, such as petitioning and other forms of protest. The combination of consumption-based and citizen-based actions may be an important lever to change across differing stakeholder groups.
  • It is important not to place all the responsibility for positive change solely on the shoulders of consumers, but to recognize consumer responsibilities alongside other stakeholders. In doing so, action can be taken by multiple stakeholders — including government and business — and balanced accordingly.

Some points to consider in preparing consumer campaigns

The research uncovers a range of key learnings in relation to campaigns that are detailed in our full report. Here we highlight some examples:

  1. Level of involvement sought from consumers: the lower consumers’ need of engagement (e.g. buying a chocolate bar), the higher the need for clear and credible labelling that can act as a shortcut, providing visual cues to enable easy action without requiring dedicated research and evaluation. Conversely, the higher the investment (e.g. buying a computer) the stronger the need for communicating clear pathways to action.
  2. Identify influencers: credible influencers, for example peers or social media influencers, are a key factor in enhancing the effectiveness of anti-slavery campaigns, and need to be strategically identified prior to campaign launch.
  3. Barriers to consumer action: anti-slavery campaigns need to carefully consider barriers stopping consumers from taking action. These can be contextual: for example, availability of opportunities to take action; and psychosocial: for example, a commonplace view that a single symbolic act won’t make much difference.
  4. Tailor to your audience: modern slavery campaigns need to be strategically tailored and targeted to the most appropriate audiences with the ability to act. While specific consumer groups are targeted for consumer-focused campaigns, other stakeholders, such as media influencers who can exert influence on brand reputation, can also be effectively targeted to indirectly impact consumer action.
  5. Credible communication: well-designed communication needs to focus on shifting habitual consumption norms. The voices of people affected by modern slavery or credible influencers can play a key role in disrupting behaviours that are often taken for granted.
  6. Be alert to potentially harmful unintended consequences prior to launching campaigns. Worryingly common, they may include stereotyping and reinforcement of harmful assumptions, unhelpful stigmatization and oversimplification of highly complicated contexts and consumer confusion.
  7. Consider wider factors: attempts to mobilize the consumer work best when they are part of a multi-pronged, multi-stakeholder strategy that aims to build coalitions among workers, NGOs, businesses, investors, governments, regulatory bodies and consumers. This multi-stakeholder approach is essential both in terms of collectivizing the voice of the consumer and harnessing their power in affecting change. This is also important because consumers themselves need to feel that their actions are part of a more holistic approach where others are also taking action.
  8. Marketing principles: marketing tools, such as, segmentation and targeting, branding, advertising and communication should be engaged to support campaigns in informing, persuading, motivating and mobilizing consumer action and implemented through the design, development and evaluation of modern slavery campaigns.
  9. Clear and measured objectives: to be effective, campaigns must be supported by clear objectives, goal setting and evaluation measurement. A strategic approach to evaluation is essential to learn from and continuously improve upon the impact of campaigns that seek to mobilize consumer-citizen action.

In considering further research on mobilizing consumer-citizens, it is important to recognize that in our role as both consumers and citizens we are concerned with a range of issues, often more than we can take action on. Thus, positioning modern slavery within broader human and environmental exploitation may be helpful to consumer citizen understanding. This is also important as modern slavery and human-nonhuman exploitation can be linked, and it can be challenging for consumers to understand the boundaries between differing forms of exploitation and modern slavery. Modern slavery should be positioned within the context of such wider concerns and the broader political and institutional systems involved.

This project was funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (the Modern Slavery PEC). The Centre is funded and actively supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), from the Strategic Priorities Fund.


This article has been prepared by Dr Michal Carrington and Professors Andreas Chatzidakis and Deirdre Shaw as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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