The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Justin Dillon, founder and chief executive officer of Made in a Free World, a San Francisco-based organization working to end the use of slave labor. Dillon discussed the power that transparency can have on driving change, as well as industry and government partnerships that have propelled data-driven efforts to combat the use of slave labor.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Joshua New: The goal of Made in a Free World is to raise awareness about modern slavery, particularly by introducing transparency into supply chains. Is slavery really a problem that can be fixed with just more transparency?
Justin Dillon: Awareness is a term that generally gets tossed around as being superficial—worthwhile, but not very impactful. However, when protecting against slavery in a company’s supply chain, it’s critical. Slavery is usually hidden deep in supply chains where a company has little, if any, information. They need to actively “look” to know whether or not it’s there, and we’ve built a software platform to help them do that called the Forced Labor Risk Determination & Mitigation (FRDM) database.
When we talk about slavery in supply chains, we’re talking about people who are forced into work they didn’t agree to for someone else’s profit; it’s the umbrella term for forced labor and the worst forms of child labor, as defined by the International Labor Organization. Think rural farms, mines, and fishing boats far out at sea, rather than only the “sweatshops” that we often see in the media. Labor conditions in factories are of course a huge concern, but the truth is that most slave-like conditions occur deep in the supply chain where raw materials are being harvested or extracted. So when we talk about raising awareness, we’re not talking about the passive act of receiving information. We’re talking about a company asking themselves questions that they may not want to know the answer to: Where and why do I have a high likelihood of slave labor in my supply chain? That’s where we step in with our slavery risk software platform, FRDM. And with the growing list of regulation related to forced labor in supply chains, from President Obama’s Executive Order 13627 to the UK Modern Slavery Act, it’s becoming mission critical for companies to address their risks.
Here’s a quick anecdote to demonstrate the power of raising awareness. Seven years ago, I was sitting with our team and someone asked, “Hey, do you think Steve Jobs knows if there’s slavery in his iPhone?” Of course we didn’t know, so one of us wrote him the following email: “Steve, does my iPhone have tantalum mined by slave labor? I’m sitting in a board room in San Francisco with a group of tech guys who believe you are aware of this issue and because of your public company restrictions, will not respond to this email — prove them wrong.”
Six hours go by and an email pops up: “I have no idea. I’ll look into it. -Steve”, along with the email signature “sent from my iPhone.” No boiler plate corporate social responsibility report. No deflections. Just three vulnerable words: I don’t know. These three words were followed up with four equally powerful words: I’ll look into it. And that’s the mission of Made In A Free World: tell companies something they don’t know“there’s a good chance there’s slavery in your stuff”—and then help them do something about it.
New: Made in a Free World developed its Slavery Footprint tool with the U.S. State Department. Can you discuss how this tool works and why the State Department took an interest in it?
Dillon: We were first approached by the State Department because they were inspired by the action-oriented Chain Store Reaction campaign that we launched after our 2008 documentary film, Call + Response. Chain Store Reaction allowed consumers to send letters directly to the companies they shop from—no anger, no vitriol—just a question that needed to be asked: what are you doing to protect your products from slave labor? Our supporters have now sent nearly 1,500,000 letters to 3,500 companies. That’s a deafening call for freedom.
Slavery Footprint came about because the State Department wanted to create a website where any consumer could find out how they are directly connected to the issue through the products that they own. We came up with a simple but provocative question: How many slaves work for you? That question leads into a graphical survey that collects information about what the user buys and owns from over 400 consumer products—food, electronics, clothes, household items, cars, and so on—anything the average person uses on a daily basis. At the end of the survey, you discover the number of slaves that work for you. It’s proven to be a powerful way to learn about the issue, and several thousand people still visit SlaveryFootprint.org every day.
Behind the curtain, your Slavery Footprint is calculated based on a huge database of product decompositions—what’s in a product, where those materials came from, the amount of labor that it takes to make the product, and the amount of slavery that likely entered the product throughout the supply chain.
New:Could you describe your partnership with the Ariba Network, a company that which helps businesses connect with each other to facilitate commerce?
Dillon: After completing Slavery Footprint, we tackled the massive question, “How can we provide businesses with information they need to protect their supply chains from slavery?” From our research, it wasn’t as simple as: companies need to spend more money on research or do more audits. We needed to create a way for companies to get specific data about where and why they have risk, then create opportunities for them to proactively engage their suppliers.
Based on our user research, we spent four years building a best-in-class software-as-a-service platform that analyzes corporate supply chains from raw material to point of final assembly and identifies specific inputs likely to be sourced with forced labor or child labor. By connecting this risk analysis with the Ariba Network of 1.5 million businesses, we have the opportunity to empower millions of global companies to make more informed buying decisions using predictive analytics and drive demand for ethically-sourced products and services.
New: Where does all the data in the FRDM database come from and how did you manage to link it all?
Dillon: The FRDM platform generates product-level risk analyses of forced labor in a company’s supply chain. Our risk algorithm relies on three databases—one for products, one for trade, and one for slavery. The Products Database is a proprietary database built by Made In A Free World that contains the component and material inputs to each of the 54,000 items listed on the United Nations Standard Products and Services Code (UNSPSC) Taxonomy. The Trade Database is a database reporting worldwide trade in goods and services collated by the Centre d’Études Prospectives et d’Informations Internationales, a French economics research institute. Our algorithm allows us to derive a probabilistic point of origin for any raw material or component in any finished product. And the Slavery Database was built by Made In A Free World and contains credible instances of reported forced labor or child labor. Each report is given a confidence weighting based on the reputability of the source and the prevalence of the forced or child labor being reported.
By blending these three databases with supply chain information provided by our clients, our analyses help companies identify the probable origin of their goods and their associated risks down to the raw material extraction.
New: Surely international supply chains are complex networks with a lot of actors, including businesses and governments that may tolerate or even actively support the use of forced labor. What are the challenges of getting data from these countries and corporations, or ensuring that this data is accurate if they volunteer it?
Dillon: Our slavery database goes beyond the reports of forced labor and child labor published by businesses and governments. We seek out credible reports of abuse originating from many sources, including human rights groups, journalists, and foreign diplomats. These actors are critical to the identification of forced labor and child labor in locations where there is considerable effort to hide abuses. That being said, we face many challenges in collecting hidden cases of forced labor that have not yet been revealed. We routinely update our database as new reports come to light.
The truth is that we’re only hitting the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible with collecting data about modern slavery. Both businesses and consumers need to remain optimistic and continue to drive innovation in this space; millions of people’s lives literally depend on it.