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How Many Slaves Are Working For You?

This story is reposted with permission from Fast Company.

It's not easy to be a socially responsible consumer.

Even if you buy mostly local products and diligently keep track of corporate environmental footprints, you may still be leaving a trail of slaves in your wake. After all, who do you think is digging up the minerals in your smartphone or picking the cotton for your T-shirts?

Slavery Footprint, a new website and mobile app that launched yesterday (the 149th anniversary of the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation) can tell you approximately how many slaves have pitched in to make the goods you enjoy on a daily basis.

The site, created in a collaboration between anti-slavery nonprofit Call + Response and the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, uses a complex algorithm to calculate how many slaves work for you based on a number of questions, including how much jewelry you own, whether you're a gadget geek, what's in your medicine cabinet, and even whether you've paid for sex (you'll just have to check out the site to get the details on that one).

After going through the process, I discovered that there are 101 slaves toiling away for me. That is actually a fairly low number, according to Justin Dillon of Call + Response. "The issue seems far away but the truth is you can't leave your home in the morning without touching something that was made with slavery," he says. In this case, a slave--or forced laborer--is defined as "anyone who is forced to work without pay, being economically exploited, and is unable to walk away."

Call + Response obviously can't take into account the brand name of every product in your home, but the Slavery Footprint algorithm is still pretty detailed--it uses information from the Department of Labor, Department of State, and Transparency International, among other organizations.

But Dillon says the point isn't to make people ashamed of our consumer culture. "I didn't want to create another bummer calculator that only spits out bad news," he says. "I wanted to see how we can help individuals use their lifestyles to end this."

So in addition to the Slavery Footprint site, Call + Response is also offering an app that lets people check in to storefronts (a la Foursquare) to let them know that they want slavery-free products. The app also allows people to directly send letters to over 1,000 brands to demand an end to slavery in their products--and then share the companies' responses to create a crowdsourced database. By taking these actions, users receive Free World Points, which Dillon likens to carbon offsets.

The Free World Points don't exactly take away from the seriousness of the slavery problem, but they do serve as proof that users are at least trying to make a difference. "Success for us means that we've shifted the conversation in the marketplace a little more that makes it easier for corporations to engage in [the slavery issue] in a substantive manner," says Dillon.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

This blog entry first appeared in Fast Company on September 22, 2011.

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