Corporate Responsibility

Forced Labor and Pioneering Activism by Quakers


The modern fair trade movement continues to gain an increasingly wide following, but its origins are somewhat humble. It started out, like many socioeconomic movements, as a fringe cause driven by smaller but dedicated groups. Among the pioneers of the movement away from forced labor and toward ethical sourcing were the Quakers, whose nineteenth-century abolitionist Free Produce movement represents one of the first systematic, nonviolent oppositions to the use of slave labor in the United States.

The movement began with a sugar boycott, which at the height of its success had inspired some 400,000 people to stop using sugar produced by slave labor. The boycott is one of the earliest examples of conscious consumerism, with the Quakers producing and distributing pamphlets to educate consumers about the consequences of purchasing goods produced by slaves.

Beyond the Boycott
In addition to taking action as consumers, Quakers created their own business models to demonstrate the economic feasibility of producing goods without slave labor. In the mid-1800s, Quakers launched several businesses to do just that. While these businesses helped expand public dialogue on the issue, ultimately it wasn’t enough. “The free produce movement never enjoyed the financial backing needed to make it the impressive, widespread assault on slavery its founders had dreamed,” wrote Pennsylvania historian Norman B. Wilkinson in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Quakers would go on to fight slavery using other methods, including by participating in the Underground Railroad.

Still, there’s plenty that modern antislavery activists can learn from the Quakers’ economic tactics. Today’s Quakers—and anyone ethically opposed to forced labor practices—can use their financial power to influence change by making business decisions and consumer choices carefully, with intentional thought and consideration of the supply chain that lies behind goods.

The global nature of contemporary economy means that many goods available in the United States are produced in regions with fewer protections for workers or lax enforcement of those that are on the books. Thus, dilligence is necessary in order to avoid forced labor.

Modern Slavery
Slavery today may involve human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, or child slavery, and it occurs in a wide range of industries, from fashion to fishing. According to the International Labour Organization, nearly 21 million people are currently living in some form of slavery, the vast majority being exploited by private companies or individuals.

In addition to refusing to purchase goods or services that may be derived from slave labor, individuals and groups can take a stand against the practice by being conscientious investors. Already, asset managers and values-aligned investors are questioning companies about their supply chains and advocating for mandatory reporting rules that require greater transparency. There has been some movement on the latter, with recent regulations going into effect in California, the European Union, and the United Kingdom.

Shareholder engagement is key in these efforts, as advocating from within is often the most effective approach. According to KnowTheChain, in 2015–2016 the coalition of faith-based investors known as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) actively engaged 57 companies about the risks of human trafficking, prompting over half to take some form of action.

If all else fails, investors can look into the process of divesting from companies with questionable labor practices. Leveraging all available tools offers the greatest chance of showing companies that the time has come to step up to the plate and take concrete actions that could finally spell the end for forced labor.

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