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Mike Scott interviews Brian Iselin, co-founder of a non-profit platform that is helping companies ensure their supply chains are free of modern slavery
Modern slavery has become one of the most prominent social issues that businesses have to deal with in recent years, but we have all been looking at modern slavery in the wrong way, says Brian Iselin, co-founder of Slavefreetrade, which describes itself as the world’s first human rights compliance platform.
Most efforts to deal with slavery focus on proving that a product or service has slave labour involved in it. Slavefreetrade, a Swiss-based non-profit organisation, turns that approach on its head by instead proving which companies are not using slave labour, with the aim of using consumer pressure to drive change among companies that are not on its list. Its platform employs a combination of conventional and blockchain technology.
“We can’t tell you which prawns not to buy, but we can tell you which ones you should buy. We can prove which boats treat their staff well. We want to make sure we build a community of good actors working together – good consumers to reward good businesses, which in turn are rewarding good suppliers,” adds Iselin, who first came across human trafficking and forced labour as a former soldier and Australian counterintelligence agent.
Everyone is presently buying slave-made products, but they don’t know. No one can tell
“Everyone – consumers, businesses, universities, NGOs, governments – buys things,” he says. “Everyone is presently buying slave-made products, but they don’t know. No one can tell.”
“We provide the world’s first human rights compliance platform, which gives any organisation the means to discover, map, assess, and monitor the human workplace and their human supply chain by linking the human workplaces together.”
When companies sign up to the platform, they register all their sites, and by extension all their staff, who can download Slavefreetrade’s app. This is where the blockchain comes in: it enables workers to report issues on the app without being identified, but at the same time for the company to be sure they are who they say they are.
Each site is assessed when a company signs up, and then continually monitored. “Each company puts in the data for their tier one suppliers,” he explains. “We then contact those suppliers and they input data on their tier one suppliers, so all the way down, we’re only dealing with direct suppliers – it’s a complete reconceptualisation of the supply chain.”
This massively increases the visibility and transparency of supply chains, he says, citing the example of a Danish company to which he was demonstrating the system. “We were looking through the platform, and they could see that they had an issue with endemic sexual harassment in a factory in Penang. Their initial response was: ‘I didn’t know we had a factory in Penang’.”
Currently, supply chain transparency in many sectors is very low. The biggest retailers, for example, have visibility on just 0.1%-0.8% of the suppliers in their value chain, Iselin states. “We turn that into more than 99% visibility. What is important is that you can see your human rights performance. No-one understands compliance in their supply chains at the moment.”
Their view is that the hardest part of ESG to solve is the ‘S’. Our platform gives them live proof of whether suppliers and investees are complying
And while the system is currently very small, with just 26 companies signed up at the time of writing, Iselin expects this to grow exponentially. One reason is that two of the signatories are large banks, and they are not just asking their suppliers to sign up to the platform but also the companies they invest in. “Their view is that the hardest part of ESG [environmental, social and governance] to solve is the ‘S’. Our platform gives them live proof of whether suppliers and investees are complying.”
It is not just about their external stakeholders, though. “Both banks are very seriously affected by the gender pay gap. And all banks have problems with sexual harassment. The platform gives them a way to address the problem.”
Currently, Iselin is funding the project himself, but he aims to build a subscription model whereby organisations pay a fee. He says it costs “about the same as a Microsoft Office licence – and for that you get 100% supply chain mapping”. For small to medium enterprises with less than $200,000 turnover or fewer than 20 staff, the service will be free.
But the key to the success of the organisation will be getting consumers involved, Iselin says. “We’re developing a series of labels for companies as they become slave-free, that they will be able to display on products and funds.
“The consumer is in charge; we have the choice in our everyday shopping to make sure we buy things that are made in freedom. The app, which will be launched after the summer, will show shoppers whether a product they want to buy is slave-free or not.”
Mike Scott is a former Financial Times journalist who is now a freelance writer specializing in business and sustainability. He has written for The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, Forbes, Fortune and Bloomberg.
This article is part of the in-depth Human Rights briefing. See also: