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BRIAN ISELIN 9 Jan. 2023 — The end of a modern slavery and human rights journey: Vale, slavefreetrade International.

BRIAN ISELIN 9 Jan. 2023 — The end of a modern slavery and human rights journey: Vale, slavefreetrade International.

The end of a modern slavery and human rights journey: Vale, slavefreetrade International.

The orig­i­nal text can be found HERE.

A lit­tle over 6 years ago, I woke up with the idea for an NGO called slave­free­trade that would test busi­ness and sup­ply chains, with integri­ty and inde­pen­dence, and put a stamp of approval on them to gen­er­ate sales and give good com­pa­nies a foot up in their mar­kets. It was a mar­ket-dri­ven project to incite a shift from the cur­rent rapa­cious econ­o­my to a human rights-depen­dent one. We planned to har­ness the demand of con­sumers to dri­ve cor­po­rate behav­iour change. It all came down just (just!) to trig­ger­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing a loop of slave-free demand between con­sumers and businesses.

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This week, the deci­sion was tak­en to close after bat­tling for all of those years with as many as 400 vol­un­teers at times, and the cur­rent 200 vol­un­teers. Let me start by thank­ing those hun­dreds who joined us over the last 6 years, those who did sup­port us, lent their advice and time, and pro­vid­ed skills and ser­vices to our work. It has been a gen­uine priv­i­lege to serve with you all, wit­ness your com­mit­ment, and good faith, and the hope for a bet­ter world that brought you to us in the first place.

But, despite the best inten­tions, we strug­gled con­stant­ly to deliv­er. Of course, the buck for that absolute­ly stops with me. We failed to get things done that, in hind­sight, prob­a­bly were over­ly Quixot­ic and could nev­er be done with­out the funds and full-time peo­ple. But we failed on real­ly sim­ple stuff, too. Mea culpa.

If you are inter­est­ed in learn­ing from oth­er people’s expe­ri­ence, even if a fail­ure, let me out­line some of the things we learned along the way. And might even form the basis of a half-decent book! 🙂 IMHO, it is impor­tant for our team that I pro­vide this small writ­ten lega­cy to feel those years are not wast­ed ones. We failed to break through the noise with a good project; so true that being a good idea or a com­pelling vision are far from being enough.

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We learned a lot on the way, espe­cial­ly me. It start­ed with the deci­sion to take a non-prof­it path instead of a for-prof­it path. It was choos­ing the road less trav­elled, and it is less trav­elled for some very good reasons.

I learned not to be afraid of mis­takes or fail­ure: they are a giv­en even if they do def­i­nite­ly set you back every time. But to sum­mon the ener­gy regard­less to just keep going and change it up to learn from fail­ings and mis­takes. You won’t get rid of back­ward steps, they are ever-present, but

you can rise to the chal­lenge to switch up a gear from one step for­ward, two steps back, to two steps for­ward and one back.

I learned that vol­un­teer­ing is much hard­er than it looks for keep­ing a social impact and tech­nol­o­gy organ­i­sa­tion run­ning. I also learned that the world is not ready for a demand-side ini­tia­tive on human rights. It is going to take a great deal more of the demand-side con­ver­sa­tion to get this going. The awok­en com­mu­ni­ty is as yet waaaay too small.

I learned that escap­ing Founder Syn­drome in an organ­i­sa­tion is a great deal hard­er than it looks or sounds. Even though I, as the das­tard­ly cul­prit, tried to run as far and as fast as I could from it, we nev­er escaped its drag, and it is an exis­ten­tial threat to a startup.

Some of our col­lec­tive learn­ing includes:

We learned that peo­ple with mon­ey might spend on social impact, but we also learned that they were real­ly only inter­est­ed in help­ing — beyond giv­ing advice — a for-prof­it busi­ness and a 15% exit. A good cause or good idea does not in and of itself get funded.

We learned that keep­ing things mov­ing for­ward, achiev­ing against out­comes, in the face of con­stant vol­un­teer churn, is a Sisyphean task that results in con­stant rebuild­ing, and rebuild­ing, and rebuild­ing. It drains. It demo­ti­vates. Churn over a long time destroys even the best intent.

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We learned right at the end not to be afraid of clo­sure. Maybe it should have come ear­li­er; there were quite a few huge jolts, exis­ten­tial threats, and tempt­ing moments. Or maybe we should still be push­ing. Clos­ing is not the out­come any­one wants from a project. But you should also not hit your head against the same wall time and again until all your best con­trib­u­tors are exhaust­ed. Leav­ing is some­times the wise choice.

As a human rights and mod­ern slav­ery project we learned that the world remains with­out a uni­ver­sal human rights frame­work for mea­sur­ing work­place con­di­tions. We made one, but it as yet has not found its recep­tive place in the world. We estab­lished that human rights can be quan­ti­fied. And that remote diag­nos­tic tools can give the best pic­ture of con­di­tions — the “best evi­dence”, in legal terms — any­where in the world.

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We learned that peo­ple in work­places are by far the best evi­dence for and arbiters of their con­di­tions, but they are not rou­tine­ly and com­pre­hen­sive­ly canvassed.

We learned that most peo­ple deeply want to talk to some­one about their conditions.

We learned that there is a deep need for mod­ern slav­ery to be addressed through a human rights lens, not a crim­i­nal jus­tice one. And to recog­nise that mod­ern slav­ery and human rights abus­es are not aber­ra­tions in this world. On our watch, we have let our econ­o­my and cap­i­tal­ism be built on them.

We learned that every work­place has human rights issues, from gen­der pay gap to child labour. And that every work­place sits some­where on a human rights con­tin­u­um with mod­ern slav­ery at one end and decent work at the oth­er. And there are ways to work out quite pre­cise­ly where.

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In our B2B project, Lib­er­tas, we learned it is def­i­nite­ly pos­si­ble to dis­cov­er and map entire sup­ply chains work­place by work­place. We learned we can use inves­tiga­tive tech­niques to remote­ly inter­view peo­ple. We can sep­a­rate vis­i­bil­i­ty from trans­paren­cy to ensure com­plete human rights trans­paren­cy while respect­ing com­mer­cial sen­si­tiv­i­ties. We learned it is pos­si­ble to save mil­lions of dol­lars for busi­ness in their com­pli­ance churn, juris­dic­tion to juris­dic­tion, by set­ting a sin­gle legal and pol­i­cy com­pli­ance bar. We learned impact can be mea­sured con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly to ensure a net pos­i­tive inter­ven­tion. We learned we can build sup­ply chains of com­pa­nies where they not only start to col­lab­o­rate around human rights, but their prof­itabil­i­ty becomes com­plete­ly depen­dent on their shared human rights performance.

Mak­ing human rights and P&L co-depen­dent is absolute­ly the world we want to live in.

We also learned, and this might shock you, an over­whelm­ing % of busi­ness, and an even greater % of NGOs, gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and inter­na­tion­al organ­i­sa­tions, are not inter­est­ed in gen­uine­ly know­ing, nor inter­est­ed in sub­stance and rigour, about their work­place con­di­tions and sup­ply chain con­di­tions. It is still not clear to me if that is fear, igno­rance, indif­fer­ence, or all of these.

I think with gov­ern­ments, inter­na­tion­al orgs, and NGOs, it is a “holi­er than thou”, “beyond-reproach” con­di­tion­ing; unfair­ly will­ing to demand it only of the pri­vate sec­tor. I find it inter­est­ing that the same gov­ern­ments demand­ing cor­po­rate human rights due dili­gence don’t hold them­selves to the same stan­dard. The hypocrisy is clear; inter­na­tion­al organ­i­sa­tions, gov­ern­ments, and NGOs, that put them­selves out there as “hold­ing com­pa­ny’s feet to the fire”, demand­ing bet­ter cor­po­rate behav­iour, don’t do any­thing about their own posi­tion. Maybe it is too hard to hold some­one’s feet to the fire when you are hold­ing your own? We found busi­ness­es over­all more like­ly, and increas­ing­ly so, to do some of the nec­es­sary. It is counter-intu­itive, but def­i­nite­ly worth some soul-search­ing by inter­na­tion­al organ­i­sa­tions, gov­ern­ments, and NGOs, espe­cial­ly those who work in the areas touched by mod­ern slav­ery and human rights issues. Some­thing comes to mind about glass hous­es and stones…

For the vast major­i­ty of organ­i­sa­tions, we sad­ly learned that appear­ances are enough. The mar­ket is not ready for, or in need of, rig­or­ous approach­es. Vul­gar risk assess­ment tools, that hurt as much as they help, are the sad gold stan­dard right now. We learned that rig­or­ous assess­ment absolute­ly can be brought to bear for small mon­ey as long as there is vol­ume to make it work. But we learned that even that small price to pay for rigour in human rights mon­i­tor­ing is too much to ask.

A cuthroat world out there, the non­prof­it world is far from gen­teel or col­lab­o­ra­tive. We learned time and again that our kind­ness and will­ing­ness to col­lab­o­rate was often greet­ed with being cheat­ed, extort­ed, stolen from, or just plain let down. We learned giv­ing trust and get­ting a good out­come is pos­si­ble, but needs to be incred­i­bly selec­tive­ly done. I guess that is a les­son for all of life, right?

We learned that when you come up with a new idea, that flies in the face of exist­ing approach­es, some peo­ple with­out the vision or courage will laugh at you. We learned that laugh­ing stops, at some point, when it sud­den­ly does look like a good idea. Those same peo­ple, though, are now almost cer­tain­ly going to laugh at our clo­sure. Per­haps they will even expe­ri­ence schaden­freude today.

But remem­ber that naysay­ers and the unvi­sioned will laugh at your new idea. Per­se­vere. Let their ridicule be drowned out by the crash­ing waves of your good intentions.

And even­tu­al­ly you will out­pace their peals.

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We learned that almost every organ­i­sa­tion does say they care about oth­er people’s human rights con­di­tions but, yet, are not moti­vat­ed to delve into their own. For the moment, we do see organ­i­sa­tions are almost 100% more will­ing to cast the first stone than take a good hard look at them­selves. I think and hope that will change. The soon­er the better

We learned there is an excit­ing and grow­ing inter­est in human rights in sup­ply chains, but that sus­tain­abil­i­ty real­ly remains all about the envi­ron­ment. We did learn a wave is com­ing on busi­ness and human rights. But, very sur­pris­ing­ly, the vast major­i­ty of com­pa­nies, espe­cial­ly multi­na­tion­als, are spec­tac­u­lar­ly under-pre­pared for it. In denial, even. And, while we believe we are at the wave­front of busi­ness and human rights, the wave was just too far from break­ing to sus­tain our insignif­i­cant NGO.

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As a con­sumer project, our Free­domer work, we learned that a small but excit­ing – and grow­ing! — % of con­sumers do say they care about human rights and mod­ern slav­ery behind what they buy. We also learned, unfor­tu­nate­ly, that most do not fol­low through on their val­ues with their pur­chas­es. Again, that will change, I believe.

We learned a dif­fer­en­tia­tor such as a label on a prod­uct can moti­vate peo­ple to direct their pur­chase, espe­cial­ly on slavery.

We learned that a slave-free label can dri­ve as much as 100% con­sumer con­ver­sion on a wide range of products.

But we learned that the work required to get that into the mar­ket with integri­ty and rigour is not pos­si­ble for a vol­un­teer out­fit with no cash.

We learned that the phe­nom­e­nal vol­ume of sus­tain­abil­i­ty noise is over­whelm­ing con­sumer ears, mil­i­tat­ing against break­ing through.

It is also baf­fling, best­ing, and bebug­ger­ing (not a word, but you get the idea) busi­ness­es. We learned that break­ing through that noise takes a flood of finance. ABBA were right; mon­ey, mon­ey, money.

As a tech­nol­o­gy project, we learned that tech­nol­o­gy com­mu­ni­ty com­mit­ment to non­prof­its, social impact caus­es, and vol­un­teer­ing, is actu­al­ly rather skin-deep. Token, in-kind con­tri­bu­tions designed more to lock in poten­tial non-prof­it cus­tomers after the cred­its run dry aren’t very kind in-kinds. We will always earn the kudos of the nam­ing rights for the term “Right­stech”, tech­nol­o­gy to pro­mote and advance human rights. At least accord­ing to the Urban Dictionary. 🙂

We learned that, despite the best efforts of a small num­ber of well-intend­ed tech­nol­o­gy peo­ple, decent tech­nol­o­gy can­not be built with­out sig­nif­i­cant mon­ey and a promise of prof­it. We learned that it is not com­plex to design the tech­nol­o­gy need­ed to make a plat­form to deliv­er real-time human rights mon­i­tor­ing in glob­al sup­ply chains. But it costs. And boot­strapped vol­un­teers alone can­not deliv­er it.

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On the fundrais­ing side, we learned very few fundrais­ers vol­un­teer, and that big talk is both com­mon and cheap. Also, we found that there are many show­bags (colour­ful but full of crap) out there. We learned that the doors to those with mon­ey – high net-worth, fam­i­ly offices, etc – are not eas­i­ly knocked. We learned grant appli­ca­tions are strong­ly hit and miss, extreme­ly labour-inten­sive, almost nev­er worth the inputs, and far from suf­fi­cient­ly wide­ly avail­able in con­trast to the demand for them. We learned that funds, such as grants, go only into the sta­tus quo. Big fun­ders in the “end mod­ern slav­ery” world get their mon­ey from sta­tus quo donors, so it makes sense new ideas don’t emerge. That is a bat­tle I under­es­ti­mat­ed; new ideas that go against the grain do not get sup­port­ed. We also learned — although knew this already, of course — that donors don’t want to fund the run­ning of an organ­i­sa­tion, for it to exist in the first place, but will fund only its projects.

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We learned that, quite incred­i­bly, some peo­ple think vol­un­teer­ing is a form of mod­ern slav­ery. Let’s agree to ignore such tan­gi­ble stupidity.

Some con­sumers care about mod­ern slav­ery. Some busi­ness­es care about human rights. And that care is grow­ing. But it is only at the wave­front right now. We are 6 years ahead of the right time. Or maybe 10? Let’s see how the world moves in the next 4 years. 20 years ago when I set up a human traf­fick­ing con­sul­tan­cy, it was 20 years too soon as well, but every­one is sure going for it now. A Founder has got to some­how mag­i­cal­ly divine how long the wave will take to break, and not get on it too ear­ly. Being too far ahead of it means you will get dumped in the churn. How you make that assess­ment, if you are real­ly obsessed with a vision, I have no advice. I could not do it. Only hind­sight tells me we were (I was) wrong.

We def­i­nite­ly learned that this wave­front, and the grow­ing con­cern about busi­ness and human rights, is just mov­ing too slow­ly to keep a vol­un­teer non­prof­it wait­ing. As I learned in the army, wait­ing is demor­al­is­ing. Bring­ing peo­ple to the solu­tion with­out fund­ing is bound to fail, even­tu­al­ly, because there is a lim­it to how long you can keep it going, how you can keep vol­un­teers moti­vat­ed, on the smell of an oily rag. At times, we were down to our last 50 bucks. And with­out deep pock­ets you can­not demand or real­ly in any way dri­ve demand for your ser­vices; it has to come to you.

Rise above the pedes­tri­an and tawdry. If you have a big idea, don’t let thoughts of fail­ure — or even ridicule from “peers” — stop you from start­ing. Big things start from some­one who decid­ed to go for it, regard­less of what must be con­sid­ered a very high risk of fail­ure. Maybe the big­ger the idea the big­ger the fail­ure, but once in a while your big idea will get a foothold, even if just in com­mon con­scious­ness. And that is more of a win than a fail­ure, to my mind at least. And if you fail in this way, hold your head high, as our entire vol­un­teer cohort can.

In the final analy­sis, the sin­gle biggest les­son I come away with is that while “Made in Free­dom” should be a thing, it is not going to hap­pen at this time, at any kind of scale, with the integri­ty it deserves, nor any time soon. But it will come, or we should not be able look our­selves in the mirror.

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Vale, slave­free­trade International.

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