Barcodes exposing rights violations

Killian Moote

Vice President of Social Enterprise Not For Sale

Labour exploitation in manufacturing can be monitored using the same technology already used by producers and consumers.

Free2Work provides consumers and companies with information on how products relate to modern-day slavery. Through the Free2Work website and mobile application you can learn how your favourite brands are working to address forced and child labour and help provide justice to those at the bottom of the supply chain.

The global slave trade is complex, and product supply chains remain opaque, making it difficult for even the most informed consumers to know how their purchases are connected to labour abuses. Companies today are more aware of potential issues within their supply chains. Many work with a wide range of initiatives, including monitoring and certification programmes, in an attempt to assure consumers that their products do not violate worker rights. The plethora of approaches is extremely confusing for busy consumers who seek an answer to the simple question, what is the story behind my products?

There is a tale behind each barcode. Most products travel through various parts of the world and through many hands before they reach us. Our goal at Free2Work is to shed light on this process. We aim to empower consumers with information about the likelihood that products are made with forced or child labour. Free2Work conducts extensive research before assigning grades on a scale of “A” to “F” to each brand. We look at company efforts in four main categories: policies, monitoring, transparency, and worker rights.

Additionally, Free2Work engages in dialogue with companies about their supply chain practices. For those companies seeking further resources, we have created Industry Best Practice Reports which highlight the industry’s performance on key Free2Work indicators, highlight best practice leaders, and call attention to areas in need of improvement.

1. Can you briefly describe the innovation, in terms of the problem(s) it tries to solve and why is it necessary?

There are over 30 million individuals living in slavery today, more than at any other time in history. Men, women, and children around the world are forced to work without pay and subjected to physical, mental, and emotional exploitation.

The slave trade is complex, and supply chain labor conditions and violations – including modern slavery – remain largely opaque to companies, consumers, and governments. Over the last forty years US corporations have made a significant shift, outsourcing the majority of their production to countries where labor costs are low and conditions are largely unregulated. While some general information on the risks and prevalence of serious human rights violations is available, a major data gap exists. As a result, markets and legal mechanisms function imperfectly: consumer demand for slavery-free products is virtually unknown, and governments have inadequate information to draft appropriate laws. Thus modern slavery and exploitation continue to thrive. The intent of Not For Sale’s (NFS) Free2Work project is to fill this data gap and provide justice to those at the bottom of the supply chain.

NFS launched Free2Work in 2009 to assess brands’ transparency and the likelihood of slavery in supply chains based on publicly available information. To properly evaluate each company, Free2Work created a common assessment tool to rate products based on company policies and practices to eliminate trafficked labour. These ratings are presented in the form of simple A-F grades that can be easily discussed and acted upon, aiding in the growth of a consumer movement.

To date, Free2Work has published over 500 brands’ assessments on more than 30,000 products, released a consumer mobile phone app, and published unprecedented industry reports.

2. What makes your innovation unique?

Free2Work evaluates the role of specific brands in the global rise of forced-labour, offers resources to companies looking to improve their supply chains, and informs consumers of the social impact behind their purchases by publishing easily-accessible information in the form of A-F grades. The information gathered is publicly available and consists of self-reported data on companies’ efforts to address modern slavery at multiple stages of the supply chain, from raw materials through the manufacturing process.

The project’s assessment tool uses impact indicators developed in partnership with the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), funded by Juniper Networks, and through extensive consultation with the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Department and a host of international labor experts. Each brand is asked a set of 61 questions. These indicators look at labour policies and practices in four categories, all related to company management systems: Policies, Transparency, Monitoring and Worker Rights. The data entered into the assessment tool is collected by research teams in correspondence with the companies under assessment.

Prior to the advent of Free2Work there was a distinct lack of standardised information on how companies address child and forced labour in their supply chains. Other organisations have since developed related projects concerning companies’ social and environmental impact, however, Free2Work remains the only platform —of all social indicator projects– that customises company ratings based on specific supply chain risks. It also remains unique in that it serves simultaneously as an external evaluation mechanism and an internal guidance tool for company improvement on compliance with international labour norms.

Free2Work indicators are based on the principles espoused in international instruments such as the Luxor Implementation Guidelines, the Athens Ethical Principles, the ILO Four Fundamental Principles and Rights at work, and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. The current development of an open-source platform will allow for the widespread scaling of assessment and dissemination of information, targeting the issue of labour trafficking from both the consumer and for profit side.

3. What triggered the development of the innovation?

NFS fights human trafficking and modern-day slavery through the mobilisation of public awareness and activism across the United States. The idea for Free2Work developed out of numerous conversations held with like-minded NGOs and government actors strategising on collective approaches for how to react to the increasing exploitation of workers at the bottom of the supply chain.

Following the birth of the idea, Not for Sale and the International Labour Rights Forum entered into a collaborative partnership to transform the idea into a reality; and over the last three years, through Free2Work, Not For Sale has expanded to target corporate transparency as one pillar of a larger strategy to confront the structural underpinnings that enable human trafficking around the world.

4. Which persons and organisations were involved in the development and what role did they play?

Free2Work is a project of NFS, created in collaboration with the International Labour Rights Forum and the U.S. Department of State. Throughout its development, Free2Work researchers consulted a range of multi-stakeholder experts including the J/Tip office, NGO specialists, labour industry experts, and company corporate social responsibility (CSR) directors.

The indicators used in the Free2Work assessment tool are based on the principles espoused in international instruments such as the Luxor Implementation Guidelines, the Athens Ethical Principles, the ILO Four Fundamental Principles and Rights at work, and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. Funding was provided by Humanity United, the Juniper Networks Foundation Fund, and the U.S. Department of State.

5. What kind of resistance have you encountered and how have you overcome it?

Through its interaction with a large number of companies, Free2Work has often been faced with the question of ‘how do we change’. Companies frequently express interest in taking concrete steps to address the identified risks in their supply chains. However, as an objective analytical tool providing both consumers and corporations with information on companies, consulting with companies on how to improve their practices can present a conflict of interest.

In order to encourage such changes without compromising the objectivity of the project, Free2Work partnered with the newly launched consulting firm, Upstream. Upstream applies a “change management” philosophy to help companies address and protect themselves from social risk within their supply chains, and takes into account all risks identified by Free2Work. This innovative partnership model allows for further change, deeper within the supply chain.

6. How did you make the goals realistic and attainable, and when will quick wins be

The overall mission of Free2Work is to contribute to the elimination of child and forced labour in corporate supply chains. At this juncture, yearly fluctuations in the number of trafficked labourers are incalculable, and thus in order to make goals realistic, we broke down the mission into attainable objectives, with clear and proven impact on the overall mission.

The objectives, described in further detail in question ten, include:  (1) empowering consumers with information about the products they buy, (2) encouraging businesses to strengthen their practices and policies in this area, and (3) identifying best practices in combating labor trafficking in supply chains. These objectives are quantifiable and thus can help us track success towards larger goals.
Easy wins are increasingly visible as Free2Work gains momentum and recognition within the labour rights movement. Corporations are more reactive to negative grades and reach out, seeking ways to improve and making changes to areas of identified risk.

For example, 1800 Flowers, which was given an “F” because it was lacked any labour or trafficking related policies, has committed to creating a code of conduct and to designing a Fair Trade flower line, and has since improved to a B- overall rating. These commitments happened through collaboration with a campaign which highlighted its grade. The campaign united 50,000 consumers and activists to petition the company to make changes. The company was non-responsive before this pressure. An increasing consumer demand for information is also a quick win, as is every informed purchase made by the consumer.

7. Will the innovation affect other organisations in the chain and if that is the case, how will it affect them?

Free2Work is a collaborative project that works with several organisations to provide valuable information on supply chain risk. The aggregation of all such data into an easily accessible system allows a diversified group of stakeholders to use and build off such information to enhance their work.

We have discussed the benefits and potential usage of this information by both consumers and companies above, however, other NGOs and human rights groups can also use information provided by Free2Work to advance their causes and advocate for change. For example, labour rights groups calling for chocolate companies’ commitment to buy fair trade cocoa can present Free2Work research and company grades to pressure the company in question, or to demonstrate best practices that lead to concrete change. Free2Work can also be used by those attempting to monitor corporate compliance in recently enacted legal measures, such as the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, SB 657. The Free2Work assessment tool can be used to measure either lack of compliance, or chart improvement over the course of time.

8. How was the development funded and what were reasons for the financing organisation?

Funding has been provided by Humanity United, the Juniper Networks Foundation Fund, and the U.S. Department of State.

These partners realised that there was a gap in addressing child and forced labour in supply chains and spurred on development of new initiatives. Both Humanity United and Juniper Networks have longstanding relationships with NFS and were excited to hear of a new project focusing on this gap and encouraging justice for those at the bottom of the supply chain.

9. Can you name 3 to 5 characteristics of the innovation that are most essential to make it work?

The four essential characteristics of Free2Work include:

A solid research methodology. Throughout the development of the Free2Work assessment tool, a wide range of multi-stakeholder experts were consulted, including international labor experts, NGO specialists, CSR directors and State Department staff. The tool consists of 61 questions: one set that evaluates supply chain risks, and another set that evaluates the company’s actions to address these risks. The “risk” indicators narrow in on the locations and production processes that make up the company’s unique supply chain. The “action” indicators assess the company’s efforts in four categories: Policies, Transparency, Monitoring, and Worker Rights. Free2Work’s grading algorithm then produces a set of A-F grades ranking the company’s management of its specific risks. In order to manage the complexity of intricate supply chains, the evaluations are condensed to look at companies’ efforts to prevent trafficking at three main levels: the production of finished goods, one key input, and one key raw material. Evaluations are tailored to companies’ particular production processes within each industry.

Innovative consumer engagement. The Free2Work audience is a large base of consumers who want to make ethical purchasing decisions that reflect their support for the protection of labor rights. NFS believes that the potential audience, in the US alone, is immense. Recent estimates suggest that a significant percentage of US consumers would avoid goods made by child labor or ‘sweatshops’. The market for organic products, currently estimated at approximately 50 million US consumers, also suggests that a vast population of ‘ethical’ consumers exits, and is being underserved. The key is presenting easily digestible, interactive mediums through which to engage consumers, keeping them both informed and actively involved in the developing movement.

Long-term strategy around consumer education. Initiating an ideology of conscientious consumerism can start with one commonly purchased product, such as coffee. However, building out that mentality to apply to all purchases, or a general understanding of the risk of child and forced labor in supply chains, takes time. Providing easily accessible information to all different kinds of consumers, with different levels of commitment to the cause, is key.

Creating a network of organisations, foundations, and government bodies that support our work. Free2Work would not exist without the support of our partners and those working alongside us to eliminate child and forced labor in the supply chain. Igniting the desire to change an entire system of corporate supply chains needs support from every level of society if we are going to be successful.

10. How do you measure whether it is a successful innovation?

Free2Work’s specific goal is to contribute to the elimination of child and forced labor in corporate supply chains by (1) empowering consumers with information about the products they buy, (2) encouraging businesses to strengthen their practices and policies in this area, and (3) identifying best practices in combating labor trafficking in supply chains. At this juncture, yearly fluctuations in the number of trafficked laborers are incalculable, and thus effectiveness is measured in terms of the objectives listed above, including Free2Work’s ability to educate consumers and generate corporate change.

The effectiveness of the first objective, to engage consumers through the provision of information concerning company practices to eliminate labor trafficking, is measured through Google analytics and a metrics system measuring the number of visitors to the Free2Work website, users of the mobile phone application, constituency satisfaction surveys, and followers on Free2Work social media.
Our second objective, to encourage businesses to strengthen their practices and policies in the area of child and forced labor are measured by 1) the number of companies that improve their policies based on their exposure to Free2Work reports and 2) the dialogue with and engagement of companies in the Free2Work rating process.

Free2Work’s third objective, to identify the best practices in combating labour trafficking in supply chains, is primarily qualitative, however, the assessment tool allows for the measurement of specific indicators and trends within set industries, and for the calculation of statistics on companies’ concrete efforts to address child and forced labor in terms of specified policies and actions. These findings are published in industry reports in collaboration with ILRF the US Department of State. Free2Work’s first industry report, “Apparel Industry Trends: From Farm to Factory”, was published online on November 14th, 2012 and has had 70,913 website visits to date. The next three industry reports (coffee, electronics, and chocolate) have been completed and are scheduled to be published in October and November 2013. These reports provide corporate staff with the opportunity to further understand the factors impacting company change and engagement in the fight against labor trafficking and allow for increased understanding of best practices through tangible examples.

11. How many people or organisations benefit from this innovation now?

The primary target audience for the Free2Work project is the large base of consumers who want to make their purchasing choice reflect their support for the protection of labor rights, as well as companies looking to improve their policies in this area. The number of consumers and corporate entities benefitting from Free2Work research is constantly growing. Between January 1, 2012 and September 28, 2013 there were 350,464 Free2Work website visits. The Free2Work Facebook and twitter profiles have 8,034 and 5,249 followers respectively, each of which plays a large role in constituency engagement and the dissemination of information regarding child and forced labor in supply chains.

The Free2Work mobile application further educates consumers providing immediate access to information on the 559 assessed brands, as well as general industry information. 17,500 users have downloaded the mobile application via the Google Play Store as of March 2013. To date, Free2Work has worked with over 150 companies. Using initial findings from the Free2Work assessment tool as a baseline, measurements have been taken on the number of companies that have strengthened their codes of conduct, increased transparency and/or improved their monitoring systems, with 15% of companies with existing profiles found to have improved on their current systems since 2010. Companies such as Hanesbrands, Lindt, Mars, and Fruit of the Loom have all made improvements; Mars, for example, began to source more certified chocolate as part of a 2020 commitment, while Fruit of the Loom has begun the process of FLA accreditation.

Free2Work has had a 40% response rate from companies assessed (8% higher than the target). Engaged companies have expressed appreciation for the roadmap and the set of standards provided by the assessment tool. Four companies improved their scores within the first 18 months of the Free2Work project: these include Patagonia, Gap, Disney and Provide Commerce. Gap moved from a B- to a B by improving practices; they continue to be in dialogue with the Free2Work team about strengthening their policies on transparency. While some companies have changed policies, others, such as Disney, have made information regarding their current practices publicly available through Free2Work.

Furthermore, Free2Work has engaged with the National Grocers Association and with the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), as well as several apparel and electronics companies, about hosting industry events to discuss best-practices. Free2Work anticipates an increase in discussion with the publication of three additional industry reports in October and November of 2013. These interactions are indicative of a larger shift in how companies look at their supply chains, and increasing pressure from conscientious consumers, as well as the number of people at the bottom of the supply chain affected by such changes is innumerable.

12. How many people or organisations could potentially benefit your innovation now and in the future? Can or will the innovation be used internationally and how do you overcome cultural differences? 

In the coming year, major improvements will be made to enhance the Free2Work tools that assist companies in improving their supply chain policies and practices. A user analysis conducted in March of 2013 demonstrated the potential for streamlining the data collection and analysis process, and showed company interest in the internal use of the assessment tool. Free2Work determined that the current platform can be better utilized and scaled through the creation of an open-source system which will allow for third-parties to access and conduct corporate assessments and produce specialised data sets. This transition will allow for an increase in the number of assessments and grades. The adaptation of the existing platform will involve a greater emphasis on current partnerships with universities and NGOs as they begin to conduct assessments and further educate both consumers and companies on how to measure risks of slavery in supply chains.

The refined assessment tool will also permit companies to conduct independent assessments on their supply chains. It can be further used as an educational tool for students learning how to monitor and evaluate supply chains, as a resource for partners investigating the strength of labor policies and advocating for company improvements, or as a roadmap for those companies interested in understanding where their policies are weak. As it expands and transitions into an open-source assessment tool, Free2Work will also continue to increase visibility of this issue and the promotion of the assessment tool through media outreach, use of social media networks, increased collaboration with partner organisations, and presentations and seminars at relevant conferences. As Free2Work continues to grow we hope to expand greatly on our user base and see the transferal of such technology into other categories of risk assessment in supply chains.

Additionally, by aligning the evaluation of corporate policies and programs with the Luxor Implementation Guidelines and international human rights instruments on human trafficking, human trafficking issues have the potential to become more central in broader labor rights-monitoring debates. Both the Free2Work website and mobile application are accessed internationally, and the number of users continues to increase with the publication of information on international brands and companies.

13. Can you quantify the financial benefits?

As an enterprise for social good, Free2Work has not focused on the generation of income, but rather on the financial sustainability of the project and viability of expansion in the future. Similarly, as consumer and corporate engagement is key to the success of the project, in order to increase usage and optimize access to information, both the Free2Work website and mobile application are free of charge. The primary financial benefit being considered for now is the sale of supply information to corporate entities.

Fortunately, increasing pressure has resulted in radical financial benefits for those at the bottom of the supply chain. Sustainable and ethical sourcing from suppliers, such as cacao farmers, can lead to huge differences in income and result in entire communities lifting themselves out of poverty, sending their children to school, or being able to drastically increase their ability to produce goods and increase their yield. As each industry differs dramatically, it is difficult to articulate financial benefits across the board; however, changes in the quality of life of individuals involved are increasingly evident. Industry specific financial benefits can be seen in the Free2Work Apparel Report.

14. Is the innovation financially viable and sustainable and if yes, how?

Initial development of Free2Work and subsequent project maintenance were funded by Humanity United and Junipers Networks. Research fellows and staff have since continued to conduct company assessments and carried out the research compiled in each Free2Work industry report. With the goal of expanding in the near future, Free2Work has implemented a two year strategy to monetize the project. This includes continual aggregation of information on corporate supply chains, the development of an open source database to maximize both consumer and corporate engagement, and the identification of socially responsible communities and corporations as potential investors.

Free2Work user analyses have indicated that other third-party platforms find the Free2Work data to be valuable and have been incorporating the data set into their respective systems. Shop Ethical, a mobile phone application with over 20,000 downloads, uses Free2Work data to inform their own user base. Social entrepreneurs, including USAID’s Challenge Slavery Tech Competition award winners “Abolishop”, are interested in further expanding upon existing applications to include Google Chrome extensions utilising the Free2Work dataset. As such, Free2Work has invested time into making its data more accessible for third-party applications, and has developed a subscription model to access the Free2Work platform and ensure financial viability in the future.

15. Did you receive any recognition?

Free2Work has garnered significant attention in major media outlets such as CNN, Forbes, CBC and Fast Company. Links to media and related press can be found on the Free2Work website. Furthermore, three web widgets were developed using the API containing Free2Work information: a brand comparison widget which compares high vs. low grades of different companies within the same industry, a brand rating widget which exposes the overall grade and the corresponding grades of the four areas of assessment, and an industry overview widget, which displays industry trends and the collective grades of the brands within each industry. Each of these is available to other organisations to use on their web platforms. Numerous mobile and web applications are currently using the Free2Work API to integrate the data into their online platforms and mobile applications, the most notable including Shop Ethical and the recent winner of the USAID Challenge Slavery Tech Contest, Abolishop.

16. What lessons did you learn along the way that could be useful to others?

Free2Work initially focused on the development of technology that could communicate information on corporate supply chains through an innovative and engaging consumer platform. However, following several platform assessments over the course of the first two years, it became clear that Free2Work’s value add was through the provision of information and ground-breaking research, rather than its technological prowess.

By reorienting to focus our energy on supply chain assessment and innovative research methodologies, Free2Work was able to deepen its expertise in industry analyses, produce higher quality reports, and increase the number of company assessments available to consumers. We now work with start-up technology companies in the Bay Area to design and create our platforms, which ensure strong technical capacity, as well as innovative outreach mediums that will help spread information on child and forced labor in mainstream supply chains.

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