Combat inequality and get a bonus hit on climate change

By Dr Darian McBain, Thai Union Group
Dr Joy Murray, Senior Research Fellow, Integrated Sustainability Analysis at the University of Sydney; Dr Arunima Malik, Lecturer i...

Dr Joy Murray, Senior Research Fellow, Integrated Sustainability Analysis at the University of Sydney; Dr Arunima Malik, Lecturer in Sustainability, ISA, School of Physics and the Sydney Business School; and Dr Darian McBain Global Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at world-leading seafood producer Thai Union Group, look at the need for modern slavery to be properly defined on a global level and how effective initiatives to combat it can also have an effect on climate change.

There are two overarching threats to humanity right now. The first is climate change, with its headline indicator, GHG emissions. The second is inequality for which modern slavery, as extreme inequality, is the headline indicator. While societies around the world may struggle to engage their governments in making climate change a priority through measures like energy infrastructure and carbon trading, combatting modern slavery relies less on governments for initiating and underpinning action. Modern slavery can be challenged by all of us with the help of NGOs that expose and monitor modern slavery in supply chains.

Of course, a Modern Slavery Act can provide focus and stimulate action amongst the business community, although many companies are already taking action. Reputation is valuable, easily lost and can take a long time to rebuild. We can probably all recall a scandal involving child labour or deadly working conditions, with subsequent media outcry and businesses compelled to take responsibility and supervise changes in their supply chains. Thus, right now it may be easier for citizens to combat modern slavery than to make meaningful inroads into directly influencing action on climate change. The good news is that there’s a good chance we would be indirectly tackling climate change at the same time.

Inequality and environmental degradation cannot be separated. With a global system that allows 26 people to own the same wealth as 3.8bn, governments have fostered fertile ground for the rich to exploit the poor and the planet. The rich donating to climate denier organisations influence governments to support their interests against the interests of the rest. Over-consumption by high-income countries hiding their increasing GHG emissions by outsourcing production to low-income countries, is driving massive change to our climate. An example of this production outsourcing can be seen in work done by the University of Sydney’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis group (ISA) and the Stockholm Environment Institute invited by the UK Government to analyse progress towards meeting its Kyoto commitment. 

University of Sydney Australia, University of Groningen and University of Leiden Netherlands, Purdue University USA, OECD Paris and NTNU Norway are key groups in this kind of analysis, which is known as ‘footprinting’. Footprinting accounts for the full impacts of a country’s consumption. Using high-performance computing power this research analyses billions of global supply chains. Using this method, called global multi-regional input-output analysis (GMRIO), these groups from around the world have calculated not only environmental effects of trade but also social effects such as inequality, child labour, and working conditions. Work has now begun on the painstaking task of adding modern slavery to this suite.

On 1 July 2019, the Australian Modern Slavery Act will begin its first reporting period. Modern slavery is the extreme manifestation of inequality. If we can convince businesses and organisations like universities to take this reporting seriously, to investigate supply chains diligently and take steps to combat the problem, we will reduce some of the most damaging inequality on the planet. Simultaneously, we will take out of the system money that is fuelling the fossil fuel industry and undermining government efforts to combat climate change.


Where are the gaps?

First, there is no Paris Agreement on modern slavery. Modern slavery lacks powerful metrics like carbon footprinting used to define and track emissions, making it hard to assign targets and document progress towards eliminating slavery.

Secondly, there is no common language, knowledge and understanding around modern slavery like that which keeps emissions in the news. Whereas today we can all speak the language of climate change there is little agreement even on the definition of ‘Modern Slavery’. An internationally agreed definition is important to enforcing legislation. Without it we will struggle to maintain a shared focus on the issue and the actions to address it.

And thirdly, unlike emissions, where in December 2018 the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders signed a letter to world leaders telling them to be ambitious in addressing climate change, corporate leadership on modern slavery, while some visibility has followed legislation, lacks the impetus to drive global change. In Australia, with the exception of Andrew Forrest who founded the Walk Free Foundation in 2010, there is little visible leadership from business and industry. On the contrary, business leaders have been known to deliberately not look for slavery in case they find it. 


What to do?

First metrics: As outlined above, since 2003 groups around the world have been providing climate change associated metrics to local and global businesses, all levels of government and bodies like the World Bank and the UN. Just as we produce carbon footprints we can produce modern slavery footprints. But it takes time.

Secondly, a common language for understanding modern slavery: throughout 2018 organisations in Australia, like the Property Council and Human Rights Leadership Group for Business, conducted briefings to alert businesses to the coming Act. In 2019, the Australian government provided support for industry engagement on obligations under the Act. Forums assembled speakers from government, business and NGOs. Speakers at these events know how to address the knowledge gap. They are already helping producers, consumers and in some cases students to understand and address modern slavery. 

With the help of virtual reality (VR), their messages can reach a wider audience. In Australia we have award winning VR companies and researchers. VR has been identified as capable of providing a solution for addressing Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Quality Education). Harnessing the power of VR, we can provide an immersive experience for combatting modern slavery. With VR visualisations of the footprint metrics, we can show how supply chains snake around the world, illustrating the importance of looking beyond tier two suppliers. We can make product traceability a reality.

Thirdly, leadership: We have highly respected corporate, civil society and academic leaders who can show the way by taking seriously their responses to the Modern Slavery Act. Buy-in from the top and a collaborative culture will support organisations in seeking advice on how to find and address modern slavery so that, instead of not looking in case they discover something, they can be proud of what they are doing to solve the problem.


In conclusion

There exists the knowledge and experience to produce a modern slavery footprint – a common metric that can provide the scientific rigour to support a benchmark and targets towards a world without slavery. We have in Australia the creativity, know-how and enthusiasm to produce VR visualisations of complex supply chains driven by supply chain data and on-the-ground good news stories. And there are academic, business and civil society leaders in Australia who understand what modern slavery means to people’s lives and are committed to change.

With these three interwoven strategies to combat modern slavery, Australia will be combatting one of the most extreme forms of inequality and simultaneously taking a step on the way to reducing a major driver of climate change. 


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