A YouTube star’s sneaker unboxing video has a surprising reveal about modern slavery

Unboxing the truth.
Unboxing the truth.
Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Sneaker-unboxing videos are an addictive strain of internet content, and YouTube personality Jacques Slade is a leading name in the genre. Between his roughly 851,000 YouTube subscribers and the many more who find Slade online, videos of him unboxing Jordans, Yeezys, and other rare and coveted shoes can rack up well over a million views each.

On May 15, though, Slade posted a video that took unboxing to a very different place. The clip shows him opening a mystery box he received; as he opens it, undoes the wrapping, and pulls out the shoes inside, Slade keeps finding statistics about the presence of modern slavery.

The box, it turns out, was sent to him by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), which works with journalists and organizations to reveal human-rights abuses and corruption. “It’s time to unbox the truth about modern slavery and to look at the human price of the products that we buy,” the foundation says on a page it set up about the project. “To do so, we’ve created a custom-made pair of shoes with hidden facts about modern slavery to symbolise forced labor in fashion supply chains.”

One statistic on the shoes says that modern slavery exists in 161 countries and counting. Another says that fewer than 2% of slaves will be rescued. (The shoes unfortunately don’t cite the sources of these statistics.) The shoes’ insoles—a part of the sneaker that remains unseen to the outside world—is a shot of a factory where people are assembling shoes.

Slade says he was contacted in advance by a creative agency on behalf of an “unspecified nonprofit organization,” and asked if he’d be willing to take part in a video about forced labor. “That was the extent of my knowledge prior to the unboxing on film,” he explained in an email.

Unboxing the truth.
The part of sneakers we don’t see.
Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation

The video, which has more than 60,000 views and counting as of this writing, is likely to surprise its viewers. Slade says his core audience is guys aged 13 to 24.

That disconnect makes it a clever tactic by TRF. ”The idea behind the campaign was to reach a whole new audience of people who may have never really stopped to think about how modern slavery connects to them and the things they buy,” a spokesperson for the foundation says.

TRF says its goal isn’t to point out specific cases or companies, but to get people thinking about the broader issue. Sneakers and fashion have long been linked to forced labor (pdf) through their supply chains. It happens through the manufacturers they rely on to put their products together, and at the deeper level of the companies that supply their materials.

TRF is also asking people who watch the video for donations, which it says will allow the organization to train journalists and investigate modern slavery.