It is not exactly news that our world’s supply chains can be quite complex from time to time. Even though we have observed an increase in concepts such as localized manufacturing and terms like re-shoring, global supply chains still seem to be the norm. In the processes from raw material to final product, too many companies still do not know who is performing certain work and under what conditions. Millions still work as slaves in our modern world, but fortunately a Silicon Valley company has set out to change all this.
The International Labor Organization reports that around 20.9 million individuals are victims of what is called forced labor. Out of this number, 11.4 million are women and girls and 9.5 million are men and boys. This is truly a staggering sum of contemporary slaves, and though many profit-hungry companies sometimes have dubious intentions it is quite unlikely that possible slavery in the supply chain would be a factor they would like to ignore. Even for this kind of companies a scandal could be a devastating blow against the brand value. But it is all not that easy.
You see, there are not only the companies hunting profit at every expense who might have forced labor somewhere in the supply chain. Since supply chains are so long, a second, third or fourth tier supplier could distribute material and goods downstream to companies that have nothing but good intentions with their businesses. Cases of slavery are documented in almost every business area, and span from forced production of clothes to construction, from slave mined minerals used in high-tech devices to food. Recently, as Forbes points out, one of the worlds largest food service companies dumped one of its major tomato suppliers in Florida. It happened when it was uncovered that the supplier was holding workers without pay and against their will between harvesting seasons, so that the migrant workers wouldn’t leave. The more cases like these that get brought to the surface, the stronger the signal that we do not tolerate slavery in the 21th century becomes – and no one should be able to profit from exploited workers living their lives under horrible conditions.
Now, a Silicon Valley company wants to make it easier for companies to review whether their supply chains are fair or not. The initiative is named Made in a Free World and has developed a anti-slavery software product called FRDM (=Forced layout Risk Determination and Mitigation) that enables businesses to investigate complex B2B commerce and identify problem areas in the global supply chain of their industry. According to Springwise, the digital tool can be used by any business in collaboration with Made in a Free World. By entering a list of one’s products into the system, the software finds the codes of the direct and indirect suppliers that make the product happen. Each of these codes opens up more data and risk assessment information.
Fast Company reports that FRDM can figure out where the components of products are most likely sourced and the likelihood that these components are coming from an area with a high probability for slavery. A supplier in Croatia, for example, might get its cotton from a high-risk country like Turkey. Once a company knows that, they know to confront their supplier to find about more about its labor practices. Moreover, FRDM can analyze risk versus investment in a certain supplier. If the company depends on a lot on a specific supplier for its business, they have the opportunity to help the supplier improve. If the relationship is weak and disposable, they can just choose to get rid of the unethical supplier.
The team behind Made in a Free World has also launched another site called SlaveryFootprint.org on which consumers can enter in basic details about what they eat and what products they use, to find out approximately how many modern-day slaves are involved in their everyday lives, as reported by Wired. Since its launch during 2011 this website has been used by approximately 23 million people, so it sure counts for something. If not for anything else, it at least raises awareness. However, the website also contains built in features for spreading the word and notifying companies about the conditions upstream the supply chain. This is good, since if there is one remedy that has made the corporate arena a little more transparent and just lately, it is consumer pressure fueled by awareness.
In this world of accessible information, consumers are more likely than ever to demand sustainable and ethical work practices from supposedly reputable brands. If you are a company not answering to these demands, you could very well find yourself outside the playing field pretty soon. A shift in consumerism towards a global economy rooted in freedom rather than exploitation should be, and partly already is, a new standard of how we do business. Now we call for increased attention.