Roy, a U.N. Women-appointed Champion for Innovation and Change, continues to help organize screenings and talks about the documentary “The Price of Free” that highlights Satyarthi’s crusade to end child slavery. Last week the pair joined human rights activist Kerry Kennedy for one at The New School’s Parsons School of Design. The film’s production company Participant Media is planning three more screenings in the next few months including one at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.
Worldwide, 218 million children between the ages of five and 17 are employed, including 152 million who are victims of child labor, according to the United Nations. Of those who are forced to work, nearly half of them — 73 million — work in hazardous child-labor conditions.
“What I love about Kailash is that he takes the approach that companies just don’t know. That is actually the case. We think the factories are compliant and that are agents [overseas] are doing what we pay them to do but in many, many cases we don’t know. Then we’re given the chance to correct that. That’s what is sometimes lost in this day and age of public shaming — the fact that people want to do the right thing,” Roy said. “I want to have child-labor-free hang tags. But I don’t want to be part of any industry that turns a blind eye to how our product is made. That idea of leading with compassion is super-important to me as well in teaching others — assuming they don’t know and assuming they want to make the right choice once they do know.”
Having known the First Lady for “a very long time” after meeting her through André Leon Talley when the designer dressed Trump for the Met Gala years ago, “I have remained friends with her. Her initiative ‘Be Best’ is all about children. She might have one of the biggest hearts quite honestly of anyone I know when it comes to children,” Roy said. (The First Lady just ended a three-state, two-day trip Tuesday night championing “Be Best” with a town hall meeting about opioids in Las Vegas and a visit to Microsoft’s headquarters, among other stops.)
Roy said, “We discussed the film, which FLOTUS watched before and which is why she wanted to meet with him. This man, a Nobel laureate, who has saved over 85,000 children’s slaves. Who wouldn’t want to meet him? Eighty-five thousand, when you let that sink in, this is the rock star of today. People saving lives are the rock stars and also scientists. Celebrities absolutely are not the rock stars any more — that is just not modern. These are the people I want to work with and most of the people who I know in fashion feel the same way. Once you see the film it really clicks, ‘Wow, I’m in an industry that is part of this.’”
While policy and safety measures were discussed with Trump, Roy declined to get into specifics, not wanting to put words in anyone’s mouths. As Roy and Trump are friends, it is safe to say the conversation will continue. “It’s pretty much all I talk about with anybody both personally and professionally,” Roy said. “My hope in going to high schools and Parsons, in particular, is letting designers, merchandisers, people who end up in production know that this is where the product ends up in many, many cases, especially for American design. Any business in America is sending their goods to Asia, and chances are this could happen. We have to make better choices.”
The designer emphasized the need for greater transparency among companies, which would encourage others to check out the factories as well. Having companies list where they manufacture in a public way would foster accountability, she said. Hiring ethical and fair-trade companies would make a huge difference. “We’ve all heard it, but until you see children hiding from captors, it doesn’t click — at least for me,” she said, adding that having consumers ask their favorite brands in a public way if they know how their products are made would be helpful.
“This is the era of putting it all out there publicly — much of it toxic — so why not use it to save lives?” Roy asked.
In addition, instead of hiring middlemen agents overseas, company representatives need to visit the factories they use. And just as the food industry changed by using organic food labels, so can the fashion industry use a similar model to create a child-labor-free hang tag for all products, Roy said.
Having recently visited Bal Ashram in New Delhi, where freed children are taken after being rescued, Roy said, “It’s intense. The way we live here is so different from the way that most of the world is living, so it’s not an easy transition for me.”
Halfway through her two-year commitment with the United Nations, Roy said she would love to extend her role, but she will continue to champion issues regardless. “Really, the lesson is we could all do it. Titles are great. They’re nice. They’re what politicians continue working so hard for. But at the end of the day, I could still do the work without the title quite honestly,” she said.