'Made in a Free World' has developed software that helps companies determine whether products they sell or make depend on global slave labor.
(TNS) — It took a bloody Civil War and the passage of a Constitutional amendment to eliminate slavery in the United States.
Today, the tools to combat slavery have become decidedly more high-tech (and nonviolent). Made in a Free World in San Francisco, for example, has developed software that helps companies determine whether products they sell or make depend on global slave labor.
But even the most advanced algorithms can’t replace the one thing the United States needed more than guns and cannons to win the conflict 150 years ago: the will to eliminate it.
According to the International Labor Organization, at least 20 million people across the world are being forced to work for no pay. These workers are either directly or indirectly producing the goods sold by major corporations and small businesses alike, including those in the United States.
In a global economy, tracing who does what (and with what, and where) poses a complex challenge, since supply chains are long and convoluted, with companies relying on layers of suppliers who contract work out to smaller suppliers and so on.
“At the level of global brands, forced labor and human trafficking can often be hidden from view, the result of complex and frequently outsourced recruitment and hiring practices,” according to a United Nations report. “The operations of otherwise independent companies (like subcontractors and other business partners) can place the reputations of global brands at risk. In this case, supply chain insecurity linked to human trafficking grows as contracting and sub-contracting grow and become increasingly complex.”
Last year, the Associated Press reported on an island off the coast of Indonesia where thousands of enslaved fishermen caught seafood sold by U.S. supermarkets like Walmart and Kroger.
Made in a Free World is a nonprofit that grew out of work that founder and CEO Justin Dillon did for the State Department in 2011. Dillon helped create an algorithm that allows consumers to determine the probability that companies were using slave labor, especially in raw material production, to make 400 popular products like beds, cars and cell phones.
“We wanted to start a conversation,” Dillon told me. “No one wants to go out and buy things from slavery. But the responsibility is on all of us.”
But Dillon realized that consumers were just one half the equation. To create real change, Made in a Free World needed to help companies — not just shame them — to rid slave labor from supply chains.
“It’s all about purchase power,” Dillon said. “If we can create (software for companies), we can bring something to the table and not just point fingers. We can work with them instead of against them. But the reality is that you have to answer this question for consumers: ‘What does good look like?’ Activists keep moving the goal post (on what it means). Our goal is to make it easier for consumers and businesses to do the right thing.”
Companies can enter data into the system and the software — which costs $250 a year for small companies, $25,000 for larger firms — which then spits out probabilities and risks for slave labor, based on information like a country’s government, human rights record, labor issues, and trade and migration flows.
For example, Retailer X can either purchase a coffeemaker from Croatia or Vietnam. The software might tell the retailer that Vietnam poses a higher risk that some of the coffemaker’s components — if not the raw material — would be made by slave labor.
“When new data sets open up, we can bring all of that in, so a company does not have to keep Googling,” Dillon said.
Over the past five years, the movement to clean up corporate supply chains has gained much momentum. In 2010, California passed a law requiring large manufacturers and retailers doing business in the state to disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from supply chains. The federal Dodd-Frank Act requires companies to state whether they use conflict minerals — tantalum, tin, gold or tungsten — from the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa.
Last week, the Vatican said it would also work to ensure its supply chain does not use slave labor.
Still, Paul Schwada, founder of Locomotive Solutions, a management consulting firm outside of Chicago, doubts that Made in the Free World’s software can really make a difference. Many companies would simply rather not know whether they use slave labor, he said.
“I think it would be wonderful to live in a world without forced labor,” said Schwada, author of “8 Blocks: The Critical Realities For Growing Any Business.” “That said, the pragmatist in me sees big hiccups in this approach.”
“There is no real value proposition — just the idea that prospective customers would rather not support forced labor,” he said. “Every Western executive would agree with that ... until you ask them what they would be willing to pay to find out whether they're already supporting it. What are they supposed to do with the information once they find out? Action costs even more money. And are their competitors going to be compelled to take similar costly action?”
Schwada may sound cynical, but he does have a point. Experience tells me two things: Large companies mostly react to problems instead of getting ahead of them. And companies generally are not willing to spend money on issues unless absolutely necessary and competitors do the same.
“Even assuming the organization has the reach and chops to put together a comprehensive worldwide database on forced labor in every major supply chain (a task akin to counting crabs in the ocean), these are steep practical hurdles to its market potency,” he said. “I wish them well, but won't hold my breath on this one.”
And yet, ethical consumers and companies will want to start somewhere. Made in a Free World’s true value, at least for now, is to provide a means to a worthwhile end. The technology is there — all we need is the will to use it.
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.