Oddly, in an age of global cosmopolitanism, “corporate social responsibility” campaigns, and technocratic regulations, we haven’t evolved out of medieval labor practices like enslavement and child labor. But could technology hold the key to cleaning up the global supply chain?
The tech-driven research organization Verité has been working on tools for both consumers and industry policy-makers to improve corporate accountability in the supply chain, and provide the public with a global view of the root causes of exploitation and abuse.
Verité’s latest project, Know the Chain (KTC), a collaboration of a coalition of human-rights NGOs, connects industry supply-chain data with policy changes aimed at curbing corporate abuse. In addition to assessing different global industries, including food and beverage, electronics, apparel and footwear, KTC scores individual companies according to benchmarks for progress.
By any measure, the results are grim. Apparel scored 46 on a scale of 100 on various criteria for labor-rights standards, showing little transparency or accountability on issues like forced labor and trafficking. Information and communications technology scored 39 percent, followed by food and beverage at just 30 points.
Though data alone are no solution, traceability itself can be a tool for understanding root causes and developing realistic accountability standards. For average shoppers, Verité’s digital mapping breaks down complex global structures to elucidate how everyday brands practice their ethics, or fail to do so. This includes fashion labels that have proven relatively sensitive to public scrutiny over “sweatshop labor” and human-rights campaigns.
According to Shawn MacDonald, CEO of Verité, the ubiquitous brand claims of “sweatshop free” and “sustainable” manufacturing are almost meaningless today, given the paucity of comprehensive data and the widespread knowledge that labor-rights violations are endemic to all global manufacturing systems. For technologists, the question is, “How do we sort through how much of this is real and how much of this is just rhetoric on the part of the company?” In many industries virtually every brand is tainted in some way with slave labor, he notes. So the question should be whether companies claiming to be “industry leaders” are really changing the status quo: “Can they point to real impact and change? Or can they only point to inputs: ‘Oh, we did X number of audits and X number of trainings’? Fine, but what does that lead to?”