Big data detects and eradicates slavery risks from across B2B supply chains

Business networks and big data are joining to give companies new means to identify and eliminate slavery and other labor risks from across their complex global supply chains.

Data-savvy B2B participants in these networks can now newly uncover unsavory and illegal labor practices that may be hidden deep inside multi-level supplier ecosystems.

The next BriefingsDirect best business practices panel discussion focuses on how Made in a Free World, a nonprofit group in San Francisco, is partnering with Ariba, an SAP company, to shine more light across the supply chain networks to not only stem these labor practices, but also reduce the risks that companies may unwittingly incur from within their own pool of buying.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app for iOS or Android. Read a full transcript or download a copy.

To explain practical and effective approaches to forced-labor risk determination and mitigation, we’re joined by Tim Minahan, Senior Vice President of Ariba, and Justin Dillon, CEO and Founder at Made In A Free World in San Francisco. The panel is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

Here are some excerpts:

Dillon: I learned about this slavery issue about 10 years ago, just reading an article in The New York Times, and really wanted to figure out a way to get more people involved. That led to Made In A Free World, a nonprofit organization that was started just few years ago.

Dillon

We began with consumers, just everyday individuals getting involved and being able to leverage their own network, their personal networks. That’s now graduated into figuring out how to get businesses to leverage their own networks.

Gardner: What is the problem we are talking about? Is this just slavery? Is this breaking the law in terms of other labor regulations?

Dillon: We define slavery as anyone who is being forced to work without pay under threat of violence, being economically exploited and unable to walk away. There are over 30 million people who fall under that definition today. In some cases, these people find themselves in the sex industry, but in most cases, they’re in informal sectors, agricultural or service industries, much of which is finding its way into supply chains.

Part of what we believe is that we have to find a way to be able to connect the dots and figure out how we can use the systems that currently exist to protect the world’s most vulnerable resource.

Gardner: Tim, why is this becoming such an important issue now for nearly any business?

Minahan: Over the past decade, as companies begin to outsource more processes and manufacturing and assembly to low-cost regions, they’ve really looked to drive costs down. Unfortunately, what they haven’t done is really take a close look at their sub-tier supply chain.

Minahan

So they might have outsourced a process, but they didn’t outsource accountability for the fact that there may be forced labor in their suppliers’ suppliers. That’s a real issue, getting that transparency into that problem, understanding whether there’s a potential risk for the threat of forced labor in a sub-tier supply chain.

Gardner: How big of a problem is this in terms of scope, depth and prevalence? Is this something that happens from time to time in rare instances or is this perhaps something that’s quite a bit more common than most people think?

Minahan: Dana, this is far more pervasive than most people think. Slavery really has no boundaries. There are incidences of forced labor in all industries, from conflict minerals in the Congo to fishing in Malaysia to, unfortunately, migrant workers right here in the United States.

Palm oil problem

Dillon: It’s really not a problem that “exists over there.” Just one statistic alone: By 2020, half of all the products you can purchase in a grocery store will have a commodity, palm oil, which has a huge incidence of forced labor, particularly around the Malaysia region and Indonesia.

This small commodity, mostly because it’s so easy to pick and harvest, is now finding its way into a myriad of products — and that’s just in agriculture.

Gardner: Why should companies be concerned? Isn’t that someone else’s issue, if it’s below the level of their immediate reach?

Minahan: You can certainly outsource process or manufacturing, but you can’t really outsource accountability. Secondly, there is a big movement afoot from regulators, both here in the United States, Federal laws, California state laws, as well as overseas in the UK to hold companies accountable, not just for their first-tier supply chain, but for their sub-tier supply chain.

Gardner: And, Justin, of course visibility being so prominent now — a camera around every corner, social media — people can easily react and irreparable damage to a company’s reputation. Do you have any examples of where this has come to bear, where not knowing what’s going on within your supply chain can be such an issue economically and otherwise?

Dillon: Well, people love to hate the ones they love. So everyone is complaining about Apple products, while they’re using their Apple iPhone. But in a recent article in The New York Times, one of the supply-chain folks for Apple said that the days of sloppy globalization is over and they’re taking this quite seriously. I would argue that some Apple’s work is some of the most innovative human rights work that we’ve seen.

They’ve dug deeper down into the sub-tier suppliers and, if their reputation as innovators has anything to do with their products, it certainly has to do with their supply chain as well. They are a great example of a company who sees these challenges, sees the connection to not only their brand, but also to their products and they’re taking some remediation work against it.

Gardner: Okay, we understand the depth of the issue and why it’s important. Now, now how do we do get the tools to combat this effectively? What have you done? I understand you have a database, and it’s ongoing. Tell me a little bit about the tools that you’re bringing to bear to solve this problem and to help companies take better accountability.

Dillon: The most important thing to do first is to realize that we aren’t operating in the 1990s anymore, in the sweatshop era. That was an era that where we found problems in supply chains and we started to build solutions around that, auditing, monitoring, all the rest of that. That was 25 years ago.

Era of big data

We’re now in the 21st Century, in the era of big data, and we need to be able to use those tools to be able to combat 21st Century problems. For us as an organization, we’ve realized this was a space where we could be helpful to business. Our mission is to use the free market to free people. That’s what we do as an organization.

We’ve realized that there is a lot of data missing, and there is a lot of synthesis of data missing. So we, as an organization, decided to pull together the bible of databases, when it comes to supply chains, the UNSPSC. Then, we built off of that taxonomy a risk analysis on every single thing good, service, or commodity that can be bought or sold. That becomes the lingua franca, so to speak, when it comes to supply chain, risk management.

Gardner: How does it work? When a company comes in and gives you information about who their suppliers are, how do you come up with inference, insight and some sort of a predictive capability that identifies the risk or the probability that they could be in trouble?

Dillon: We are using all the best databases that currently exist on the issue. Everything from forced-labor databases to child-labor databases to rule-of-law, governance, migration, trade flows. All of that is synthesized into an algorithm that can be applied to any individual’s spend data. You’re able to get a dashboard on all that spend, which gives you some optics into your sub-tier suppliers, which is where we need the optics. It’s not a crystal ball, but it’s the next best thing.

That database and analysis are now available to anyone, any size, any sector, to leverage their influence to the extent that they can. We’ve recognized that you can’t be everywhere at all times but you’re somewhere at some times and that’s the place we feel like any company can make the greatest influence.

Gardner: Now, Tim, the labor issues that we’re talking about are certainly a risk issue, but at the same time, we’re looking to find more ways to automate and make visible other types of risk, any kind of risk, in the supply chain in procurement, buy-and-sell environment.

Tell us a little bit about how this particular risk fits into a larger risk category, and then how the databases for each of them, or many of them, come together for a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Minahan: As Justin said, the information here is shining a light on a particular issue, being able to mass, for the very first time, data points from hundreds of different data sources around the world to predict and project the threat of forced labor.

Extending that further, that’s one risk indicator that companies need to manage. Companies are managing a whole host of sustainability issues around social and eco-responsibility, but also financial risk, and threat of disruption risk.

Being able to pull all those together into a common risk factor is what we’re attempting to do through the power of business networks. By connecting the world’s businesses and connecting their supply chains and automating their processes, that was phase one.

Phase two is harnessing all the information from all of those interactions to provide a better level of visibility that raises that transparency for everyone. Then, you can predict future risk. Being able to tap into what Made In A Free World has done in this particular area, pull that into the network, and expose that as another risk factor that companies can evaluate is a very powerful opportunity for us together.

Gardner: As we’ve seen in other aspects of the networked economy, the better the data, the more influence, the more action as a result of that data, that encourages more people to see value and add more data back into the pool and so on and so forth. Tell us about the news you made in April at the Ariba LIVE conference and how that works into this notion of a virtuous adoption cycle.

New partnership

Minahan: Ariba and Made In A Free World announced a new partnership to bring the power of the Made In A Free World database together for predictive analytics of forced labor with the power of the Ariba toolset and the Ariba Network to help the Global 2000 and beyond be able to have the transparency they need to identify potential risk, in this case, of forced labor and their supply chain, and be able to take action and rectify it.

Gardner: Justin, how do you see this announcement benefiting your cause?

Dillon: Well, it moves us past the point of saying there is nothing that you can do as a company. That is no longer an option on the table. What you’re going to do is the next question. We have removed the word “if” in this conversation — and we couldn’t have done that without Ariba.

And we can see how the Ariba Network is going to be helpful, because companies are coming to us and coming at the federal government saying, “What are we supposed to do? How do we move forward? This seems like a huge problem.” They’re right, and the solution is right in front of them.

Gardner: Tim, for organizations that are now more aware of this problem, and of the general risk issue across supply chains, how do they start? Where do they go to begin the process for getting better control that allows them to have better accountability?

Minahan: That’s exactly what Ariba and Made In A Free World are trying to do —  provide the tools necessary for companies to get started. We mentioned together the technical solution that we ‘re bringing to bear to allow folks within the Ariba community to be able to access the Made In A Free World input and be able to project potential issues of forced labor in their supply chain.

Together, through that effort, we’ve developed a playbook that provides suggested guidelines for folks to get started. You can’t fix what you don’t know about. You can’t improve without having some understanding of where you fit in the mix. We believe that data and doing an analysis on the freedom platform is the best way for a company to get started.

We think it’s the best synthesis of practices, data, influence, and the network effect that anyone can begin to take. We suggest that they start to look at their own risk based on what they are buying and based on their own exposure. Every company that comes to us, we’re able to do this risk analysis with them, and they’re are getting new insights.

In addition, there is a whole ecosystem of companies that are really looking at this issue hard. The thing that’s most exciting about it is that everyone is very transparent and they’re willing to share. So you have companies from Patagonia to Apple and the like that are sharing their practices freely, because this is an issue that we want to address. The business world has the opportunity to address probably the most serious issue facing us today, and that is modern slavery.

Learning more

Gardner: It strikes me that this is a game of numbers. If enough companies examine their supply chain sufficiently and then eradicate the areas where there is trouble, the almighty Dollar, Peso, or what currency it may be, comes to bear, and things like corruption don’t work and bad labor practices don’t get supported. Is this a rolling-thunder sort of thing. If so, what’s the timeframe? Is this something that can be solved in a fairly short amount of time if people actually come together and work on it?

Dillon: To me, it’s the greatest story ever told. This is the thing that we all appreciate, and frankly we all benefit from it. We’re all benefiting from a free market and the way that we look at change in our organization is that we say that change is more about judo than karate. How can we use the force against itself to actually change it, and the marketplace is the way to do that.

So yes, this can move quite quickly. In my opinion, it’s much quicker than governments can move. We think that they’re going to be followers in this case and we highly expect them to be followers.

Gardner: Tim, if companies do this right, if they leverage big data, if they examine risk properly, what do they get, other than of course the direct reduction of that particular risk? It strikes me that we are not just tackling risk, but we’re putting into place systematic ability to manage risk over time, which is way more powerful. Is that what we’re going to get?

Looking at risk

Minahan: Absolutely. Companies are looking at risk holistically, and this is one key vital input into that. As they continue to address that and, as Justin said, we’re using free markets as a powerful lever to free people. They can, through their buying patterns and their buying policies, begin to adjust the market, shine a light not just on their own supply chain but change the sub-tier supply chain practices to make sure that there is fair labor. It becomes unappealing to have forced labor and it becomes a detriment to their ability to win new business by doing that.

That’s really what the power of data and the power of business networks can deliver in this scenario.

Dillon: Businesses are the heroes in the story. It’s not the non-profit, and it’s not government. Anytime you associate business with human rights, businesses are often qualified as Darth Vader who actually think that they are Luke Skywalker in the story. And for us an Ariba, I don’t need to put that on them, but we are just Yoda.

We’re giving them the tools that they need to fight the evil empire and we are going to do it together and celebrate it together. But this is one thing that we’ll have to do in concert. We all have individual roles to play, and business has a very clear, distinct role to play.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Get the mobile app for iOS or Android. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: Ariba, an SAP company.

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About Dana Gardner

Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, an enterprise IT analysis, market research, and consulting firm. Gardner, a leading identifier of software and cloud productivity trends and new IT business growth opportunities, honed his skills and refined his insights as an industry analyst, pundit, and news editor covering the emerging software development and enterprise infrastructure arenas for the last 18 years. Gardner tracks and analyzes a critical set of enterprise software technologies and business development issues: Cloud computing, SOA, business process management, business intelligence, next-generation data centers, and application lifecycle optimization. His specific interests include Enterprise 2.0 and social media, cloud standards and security, as well as integrated marketing technologies and techniques. Gardner is a former senior analyst at Yankee Group and Aberdeen Group, and a former editor-at-large and founding online news editor at InfoWorld. He is a former news editor at IDG News Service, Digital News & Review, and Design News.
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