As seen on WIRED.com
By: Issie Lapowsky
Steve Jobs helped convince Justin Dillion he could change the way some of the world’s biggest companies do business.
It was 2008, and Dillon, a musician turned anti-forced labor activist, had just launched an online campaign called Chain Store Reaction that asked everyday consumers to write letters to their favorite companies, urging them to eradicate forced labor in their supply chains. On a whim, Dillon dashed off an email to Jobs, asking if the iPhone was made of tantalum, a material used to make mobile phones, that had been mined by forced labor. Dillon never expected a response, but four hours later, he got one. It looked like this:
I have no idea. I’ll look into it.
Sent from my iPhone
It was then that Dillion and his colleagues realized that his project might actually work. “We were like: ‘This isn’t that hard. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible,’” he remembers.
Since then, nearly 900,000 emails have been sent through Chain Store Reaction to nearly 3,500 businesses. Meanwhile, Dillon 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. Slavery Footprint, which launched in 2011, has since been used by some 23 million people.
Both of these campaigns helped raise awareness about the issue of modern day slavery. But awareness can only get you so far. Now, Dillon wants to help businesses take action, too. That’s the thinking behind FRDM, a new software platform built by Dillon’s non-profit organization, Made in a Free World.
On FRDM, businesses can upload data on all the items they buy and where their suppliers are located, and FRDM will generate a dashboard, explaining who the riskiest suppliers are. Then, it’s up to the businesses to seek out bad actors and reassess their suppliers. “We help them identify where the hotspots are going to be,” Dillon says. “You can’t change all 30,000 suppliers at once, but if we can tell you the top 10 suppliers to focus on, that’s a good start.”
A good start is much needed. According to the International Labour Organization, almost 21 million people around the world are victims of forced labor. The U.S. government is working to eradicate forced labor from its own supply chains—in 2012, President Obama signed an executive order, vowing to strengthen checks in the system that would ensure federal contractors aren’t working with suppliers that deal in human trafficking—but as Dillon says, the biggest change will come in the business world.
After all, businesses have the power to hit these suppliers where it hurts: their bank accounts. “We believe we have to turn businesses into the heroes,” Dillon says.
To build FRDM, the Made in a Free World team enlisted the help of Mira Rubenstein, who has her PhD in mathematics from Harvard University. She started by collecting data on where slavery is most prevalent and what products it affects. Then she combined that with United Nations trade data on which countries source which products from which places. And, finally, she and her team broke down a list of thousands of business products and services into their component parts, to determine all the raw materials that are required to, say, make a computer or a telephone.
Using those three data sources, Rubenstein built an algorithm that could predict how likely it was that a given product, sourced from a given place, was made using slave labor. “The idea is that the user would contact his supplier: and say, ‘Tell me more about where you’re getting the following parts of your computers,’” Rubenstein says.
Rubenstein admits, however, that there is still plenty of data that could be used to make these predictions more precise. For one thing, she hopes to see individual suppliers begin entering their own sourcing information into the system. “Then you’d know this one supplier in China has computers that are fine. We’re jump-starting this engine,” she says. “We don’t want to hurt the country and the legitimate businesses there.”
‘Minimum Viable Product’
For now, FRDM doesn’t take into account other risk factors that could indicate a prevalence of slave labor like, for instance, migration data. But Rubenstein says she hopes to incorporate that kind of data in the future.
That might require some help, however. Dillon admits that FRDM is a “minimum viable product” pulled together by a devoted part-time staff. “It’s basically Dixie cups and strings,” he says, laughing. Which is one reason why the non-profit is taking a measured approach to onboarding companies. Today, only nine companies are registered with Made in a Free World, which means they’ve assessed their supply chains on the platform and are taking steps to address high risk suppliers.
But the organization’s reach may soon grow exponentially. Last week, Made in a Free World announced that it is now working with SAP to make the FRDM database available to all of SAP’s customers. By integrating with SAP, the platform would have access to the technological brawn it needs to scale. “If a Fortune 50 company sent us all their spend data, it’d crush us. But it wouldn’t crush SAP,” Dillon says.
For Dillon, FRDM is as much a tool for the business community as it is a clarion call. He hopes to see more partners, particularly those with expertise in data mining and predictive analytics, coming forward to help strengthen and shape what Made in a Free World has started. “We built it because we thought the world needed it, but I’m not saying someone else couldn’t build it a lot better,” he says.
“Part of my message to companies is: we’re not having closed conversations about this. I understand they’re dangerous and hard conversations, because you might get beat up for it. But get over it. We’re here to help you get over it and be the hero. But we’re very serious about what you need to do.”