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Sex Trafficking: How Brands Can Help End Commercial Exploitation by Interrupting Demand

Image credit: TripAdvisor

As a first-time attendee at a Sustainable Brands conference, I expected SB’16 San Diego to be largely about environmental issues. It certainly was – from the conference’s commitment to producing zero waste, to Pratt & Whitney’s “green” jet engine on display in the parking lot. But as a purpose-driven professional with a commitment to the social impact side of corporate social responsibility, I was thrilled to hear panelists redefine sustainability through a human-focused lens.

In particular, Wednesday’s panel on sex trafficking and how brands can help interrupt demand was a standout session. Moderated by Gwen Migita, VP of Sustainability & Corporate Citizenship at Caesars Corporation, the panel featured a corporate brand leading the charge to end commercial exploitation along with subject matter experts. Brenda Schultz, Director of Responsible Business at Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, shared how her company has taken strides to fight sex trafficking; while Mar Brettmann, Executive Director of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), and Dr. Halleh Seddighzadeh, an international counter-trafficking advisor and trauma specialist in torture and sex trafficking, provided context on the far-ranging scope of the issue.

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Brettmann and Seddighzadeh kicked off the panel by defining sex trafficking: The basic definition under U.S. federal law is “sexual exploitation of a minor, prostitution of a minor, or the use of force, fraud or coercion to force an adult into sex work.” Thousands of children are trafficked each year in the U.S., and the typical age of youth entering prostitution – by coercion, not their own consent – is 13-15 years old. Sex trafficking causes severe harm to the children and women involved; over 80 percent of prostituted people experience physical and sexual assaults, homelessness or PTSD, and 9 out of 10 report wanting to leave prostitution if they had the chance.

However, it’s not just the victims of sex trafficking who are impacted. Bystanders can also be held liable for sex trafficking taking place on their properties, including hotels, shopping malls, apartments, parking lots, restaurants and more. In Seattle, 63 percent of sex trafficking victims have passed through hotel properties unwillingly, ranging from economy motels in rural areas to luxury hotels downtown. According to Brettmann, one prosecuting attorney said that he has never worked on a sex trafficking case that didn’t involve a hotel.

Schultz shared that in response to this data, Carlson Rezidor hotels have committed to take a stand against sex trafficking on their properties. This includes placing signs in hotel lobbies to let guests – and potential trafficking victims – know that the hotel has a zero-tolerance policy for sex trafficking, providing hotline and text numbers for victims to use in seeking assistance. 

Sex trafficking, however, is an issue for all businesses – not just those in the hospitality industry:

  • Studies suggest that the peak time buyers procure sex online is 2:00 pm – the middle of the workday.
  • 63 percent of prostituted people said that they met clients on company properties.
  • Sex traffickers use business products and services to procure sex, including company computers, phones and more.

Businesses’ reputations are at risk every time a trafficker or buyer uses their core services. The good news? Brands have the power to change attitudes and actions that harm businesses and exploit women and children.

At Radisson and Caesars, response within the companies and among guests about their commitments to end sex trafficking on their properties has been positively received, despite initial fears about the issue being “too dark” for the brands to address.

Brettmann recommends that brands who want to take a stand against sex trafficking implement a few policies, including:

  • blocking sex purchasing websites,
  • taking a zero-tolerance stand against buying sex on company time or with corporate resources, and
  • incorporating sex trafficking education into HR’s sexual harassment training.

These policies are an easy way for companies to address the issue and don’t have to be communicated publicly as part of CSR efforts.

As purpose-driven professionals, we have a responsibility to leverage the power of business to make the world a better place. Ethically and morally, this can and should extend beyond environmental solutions to include solving social challenges – especially those which are pervasive and not often discussed, like sex trafficking. It’s time we broaden sustainability efforts to help create sustainable communities and lives for all.

For more information about how your brand can help stop sex trafficking, please visit  

Lauren Hare, an Account Supervisor in Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose practice, has spent her career raising funds and awareness for social impact. At Edelman, she works with brands who are committed to ensuring that people and the… [Read more about Lauren Hare]

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