Seattle Foundation Blog

How $8 T-shirts Fuel Modern Slavery

A Seattle Foundation philanthropist shares how companies can protect people from forced labor while running ethical businesses

April 05, 2019

Guest Post By Shanen Boettcher, Seattle Foundation Philanthropist

What is the opposite of freedom? Lack of choice? Oppression? Exploitation?

Perhaps nothing else captures the concept better than the word “slavery.” But to many of us, that word feels outdated, something from the past that has been abolished and is internationally recognized as inhumane and illegal.

Unfortunately, modern slavery is very much alive and fueled by the same centuries-old economics. It’s hidden (somewhat), rationalized and described using modern terms and modern technologies. It’s also an integral component of the better-and-cheaper products many of us seek and procure every day.

We all need to stop and ask the questions: “Where does all this stuff come from?” “How is it made?” “How can it be this cheap?”

In the fall of 2016, I stepped away from my career in the technology industry and focused my energy on being a dad. Part of my new “job” was building a philanthropic plan for my family and I started a journey of learning. My education on modern slavery began in December of 2016 when a former colleague invited me to attend a meeting in Dubai of the Global Sustainability Network (GSN), a diverse group of people around the world working on Goal 8 of the United Nations Sustainability Goals: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

alternative textPhoto courtesy of Lisa Kristine

The goal states:

“Economic growth should be a positive force for the whole planet. This is why we must make sure that financial progress creates decent and fulfilling jobs while not harming the environment. We must protect labour rights and once and for all put a stop to modern slavery and child labour.”

The words “modern slavery” kept ringing in my head. How big of a problem could this be today? The answer is substantial: In 2017, the International Labour Organization estimated that there were 40 million people trapped in modern slavery. Other estimates range from 20 to 70 million people, with upward of 150 million children involved in some form of forced labor.

At the GSN meeting, I met dozens of passionate, creative people working on this problem, including former heads of state, CEOs and faith leaders from every corner of the world. They include photographer Lisa Kristine, founder of Human Thread Foundation, who documents modern day slavery; filmmaker Jeffery Brown, who directed SOLD; and entrepreneur Justin Dillon, who founded technology startup FRDM (pronounced “freedom”).

Based on my professional experience, I immediately gravitated toward applying technology to the problem and consulted Justin to learn how I could get involved. In a nutshell, FRDM applies artificial intelligence and machine learning in its worldwide database to monitor labor risks in supply chains. FRDM’s service provides companies with a new level of transparency into the raw materials, products and services they consume as part of running their businesses. Every time a company uses FRDM, a moment of truth is created to make decisions that can stop human trafficking and forced labor. Early customers of FRDM include Target, Boeing and Virgin, with more joining each day.

I'm passionate about FRDM’s vision because I see the scalability and leverage that can come from providing companies with transparency into their global supply chains.

alternative text FRDM's online tool

While FRDM is a for-profit social enterprise, it contributes five percent of revenues to “Made In A Free World,” its non-governmental organization arm. This approach and capitalization model is becoming a trend, particularly in technology-based social good organizations. First, it drives measurement and accountability that resonates with many of us who grew up in the private sector. Second, these companies need to attract talent in ultra-competitive technology hubs where the cost of living continues to rise. Social good employees still often make a fraction of their private sector peers, but want a basic standard of living in order to commit long-term to their passion.

Through some trailblazing work by our Seattle Foundation Philanthropic Advisor, Stephen Robinson, we found a path through a trusted nonprofit intermediary to use our Community Philanthropy Fund to invest in FRDM’s for-profit social good enterprise. This was new for Seattle Foundation and a testament to the organization’s agility and innovative spirit.

Even if they are advanced in their corporate social responsibility commitment, companies almost certainly lack tools to analyze their product supply chains, travel expenditures and discretionary purchases in terms of their potential impact on modern-day slavery, forced labor and human trafficking. So, awareness of FRDM’s solution is critical to turning the tide on this global problem.

If you would like to learn more or get involved, please feel free to contact Stephen or me.

Note: This guest blog expresses the opinions of its author, who was invited by the Foundation to share a community-based perspective. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Seattle Foundation and the forwarding or reposting of this content should not be viewed as an endorsement.



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