An in-depth interview with Justin Dillon on modern day slavery: “I think we actually have a shot at saving millions of people”

Five years from now, Justin Dillon would like to see products in his home that have the “Made In A Free World” marking on it. “ I think making products that are free from slavery is a fantastic goal. And is actually one that we have achieved before and that we should be able to achieve again.”

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

We spoke to Justin Dillon - CEO and Founder of Slavery Footprint, on his the motivations, and inspirations behind Slavery Footprint – what he defines as ‘slavery’, and on the aims of the project. We also dig deeper in to the technical side of the project – and the philosophical side. Can the consumer really make a difference? What can companies, governments and pressure groups do? Who are the worst offenders when it comes to slavery? Does boycotting work? – and finally, where does he see the project in five years time?

Who are you and what is your background?

I am also director and producer of the film Call + Response. My background is in music. I’ve been a musician all my life. I found the issue of modern-day slavery something that I wanted to take up as an artist and I started putting the pieces together 5 or 6 years ago- figuring out ways to get the music community and cultural community involved in this. That’s lead to years of starting non-profit organizations, creating websites, and working with groups such as Google and the U.S. State Department.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

What inspired you to create Slavery Footprint?

It all goes back to being an artist. I like taking difficult concepts and trying to make them simple and something that the average person can personalize. Whether that’s talking about some type of emotion in a song, like a break up which is strangely complex, or taking something as serious as slavery in commodities and supply chains. As basic as an idea as that sounds, it’s quite complex to get people to understand. I try to apply that same rigor of emotionalizing a very complex issue and putting it into a vehicle that people can digest. Whether it’s a song or a website, there’s still the same challenges of taking something complex and making it personal.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

How do you define the term ‘slave’ in the project? Does the individual in question have to work for free, and be coerced and forced to do something without compensation? I.e. the OED states that ‘slave’ is ‘a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them’ – but are you using it in a looser manner in the sense that you cover low paid workers too?

We define a slave as anyone who is forced to work without pay, being economically exploited, and unable to walk away. Forced labor, also known as involuntary servitude, may result when employers exploit workers made more vulnerable by high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime, discrimination, corruption, political conflict, or cultural acceptance of the practice. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable, but individuals also may be forced into labor in their own countries. Female victims of forced or bonded labor, especially women and girls in domestic servitude, are often sexually exploited as well.

Would you consider this slavery?

Well, part of what we do is talk about the worst forms of child labor. There are lots of different ways to slice that up. For most of us in the developed world, we look at the child labor in the developing world and see it as extremely unjust. The reality is that in the developing world, kids do have to work a lot more than kids in the developed world. So, we have to be careful what kind of lens we put on that. What Apple is saying, as I understand this, is that they’re trying to get all child labor out of their supply chains. That’s good. That’s a very comprehensive way of looking at what they’re doing.  I don’t think children do belong in factories. I think we need to be careful about what we allow in our products. Is it slavery? Not necessarily. Again, the report isn’t comprehensive enough for us to really to get deep down and we, as an organization, want to make sure that the lens with which we’re looking at child labor and migrant labor is a correct one.

Foxconn Foxconn Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

What are the main aims of this project- both short and long term?

Our short-term goal is to educate consumers on how the stories of their lives affect the stories of those people at the end of the supply chain. We want to prove that people care about this issue. The way we prove that people care is through the actions they take in the marketplace. For instance, consumers can download our Free World application on their smart phones and take it along with them as they shop. By sending letters to their favorite companies asking them to investigate their supply chains, they’re actually advocating for those who are trapped in the supply chains that support our lives. The long-term goal of Slavery Footprint is to connect shared values between consumers and producers around slavery and products. What this will end up looking like is a binary choice in the marketplace; some way of being able to determine whether or not the brand that you are buying from has engaged with the issue of slavery beyond the factory floor.

What is it about the way you present your information (through dada, and through the way it is presented in the HTML 5 app) which makes it so effective?

We knew it had to be as interactive as possible so that people would relate to the problem. We didn’t want to create another bummer calculator that only spits out bad news. People just don’t tend to respond to that type of information. They don’t see how they play a role in what is happening or how they can put a stop to it. So with Slavery Footprint, we actually want to be able to tell you how your story fits in with the globalized economy.

With HTML 5, audiences really find themselves getting into it. That’s why we ask you to give us information about your lifestyle–your age, if you have kids, the size of your house, that kind of thing. Before you know it, you’re turning all those dials, adjusting your info and really personalizing the experience. Our visitors average almost 9 minutes on the site.

We created the accompanying Free World mobile app because we didn’t want people to think that learning their slavery footprint was the last chapter of the story. We took advantage of the “check-in” model because we saw it as a way to leverage people’s consumption for good. So you open the app when you’re out in the world, say at your favorite grocery store. It asks you what store you’re at and if you want to contact the store to tell them that you care about the slavery content of their product. We wanted to enable people to make a statement at that moment, to be able to express and advocate for a value while shopping.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

How did you go about calculating the scores?

Your total slavery footprint represents the number of forced laborers that were likely to be involved in creating and manufacturing the products you buy. We looked at more than 400 different products and built an algorithm to figure out the likelihood of forced labor being used in each. We drew data from five different reports–from the State Department, the International Labor Organization, and others–and created weights based on how much they focused on each kind of product or sector.

Let’s take a T-shirt, for example. We disregarded the brand and broke down all the commodities in that shirt. Is the cotton from Uzbekistan, or is it from Chile? We did a deep-dive on commodities research to figure that out, and then linked back to the reports, which give us an idea of whether, for instance, children in a certain country are being forced under duress to work in cotton fields. We’ve vetted this pretty extensively–we know it’s not perfect, but where it’s not, we err on the side of being conservative with our numbers.

How did you go about getting the grant from Google and how important do you feel this has been to the project overall?

Google contacted us when they heard about Slavery Footprint. They thought we were a good fit, as part of a larger grant they were awarding organizations that were combating human trafficking. They recognized and were impressed with the fact that we are taking on a very complex problem and trying to make it simple and relatable. That is something that Google does very well. They are the best out there in terms of aggregating and supplying data in a meaningful way that affects our every day lives. Because this is exactly what we’re trying to do, it’s very meaningful for us that they would financially support us in our endeavors.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

I would love to say “Buy this product” and “Don’t buy that product” but we are not there yet.

What can the average consumer do to make a really positive difference?

Consumers simply need to show that they care. Right now I would love to say “Buy this product” and “Don’t buy that product” but we are not there yet. If we don’t prove that this matters to us, we will never get there and that’s why Slavery Footprint and our associated mobile app are critical tools in building a case that people care. There has never been a human rights movement without people using some communication device to prove that it matters. I don’t care if it’s a printing press or a telegraph. There has never been a human rights movement without some form of communication that people have used to express that this was an issue of value to them.

What can companies – large and small, do to make a difference?

Engage and not defend. I think that it’s absolutely ridiculous that anyone would call this issue controversial. This issue is not controversial. We as human beings all agree that slavery is wrong. When we start talking about how businesses engage, we have to think about how businesses work. I am of the mind set that a business is not a person- it is run by people. We have to understand that if businesses are to engage, they need to understand how they can leverage their brand to connect to the shared value that slavery is wrong. We don’t believe that businesses are knowingly going out and using slave labor. That is equally ridiculous. But what we need to be able to do is get out of the posture of defending themselves against that imposition and actually engage them to make a difference. To be honest, I don’t think that the first move is on businesses, I think the first move is on consumers. Consumers need to give businesses a reason to engage otherwise it won’t happen.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

When do you feel your project will reach a tipping point, and start to truly achieve it’s aims?

I’ll begin to feel satisfied when I can walk out of my office and into a store and see a “Made In A Free World” label on either a retail business or product. It’s then that I’ll know that we are starting to get synergy in the shared value that both consumers and producers believe that slavery is wrong and want to do something about it. Until we get there, there are lots of points of celebration. One of them is that we have seen more people find out their slavery footprint than we ever could have imagined. We expected only 150,000 by September 22, 2011 (which is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) and we are now way beyond that. Several tipping points are already being reached but the goal is being able to see people being able to act on that value in the marketplace.

Do you think we will ever live in a world where slavery doesn’t exist

No. But I do believe that we can live in a world where the worst, obvious, egregious forms of slavery don’t exist. And these are the ones that happen because of indifference, not because of evil. They happen because of greed. They happen because horrible people decide that they want to exploit another person’s body for their gain. We live in a world where slavery is – for the first time in history – illegal everywhere, and yet we are seeing it more and more. We are going to add billions of more people to this earth over the next 10-20 years. So, the numbers that we see right now are poultry compared to what will happen if we don’t push through our indifference, collective individual indifference, and act on the values that we all have.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

What do you feel the biggest root causes of slavery are?

Greed. 100 Percent. Greed packs its own different forms of evil but at the end of the day it’s about making money. So we have to ruin people’s business that decides to sell people and use people for their own personal gain. That is the antagonist in this and why we have to be smart about it and not just approach it as simply an evil problem but as a financial problem.

Why have you shied away from calling out specific retailers and manufacturers? Do you know any of the worst offenders – and are you willing to divulge?

Because it’s utterly unfair to overly reward or overly punish one brand when there is thousands behind them, doing equally wrong or equally good. We tend to hurt the ones we love, the big brands, when the reality is the bigger brands usually have more capacity to give this issue more attention. It is not helpful to call out brands when the standards with which we need them to adhere to have not properly been addressed. That is what we are aiming to do.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

Which industries overall are the worst offenders when it comes to Slavery?

It needs to be looked at a little bit differently. We are talking about slavery in the commodities that go into the products that we use. It could be gold. It could be tocsin. It could be charcoal or pig iron or cotton. It could be shrimp or palm oil. These are things that most people don’t think about because the end product is something they connect with more. But the reality is there could be one to dozens of commodities in any one product that has slavery in it. With our calculations and algorithm, we are able to empirically determine the minimum amount of forced labors in every product. That research not only blew us away but also blew away the labor community. You honestly can’t walk out of your house in the morning and not touch, eat, or wear something that was made without slavery.

Your project appears to be aimed at consumers. Some might say ‘Why should consumers effectively be to blame for the problem, and have to go out of their way to change their buying behavior – when it should be corporations changing their ways – why are you not lobbying corporations?’ – what would you say to this?

I agree. The term that we use is that we, as consumers, are “unwilling fully complicit” but understanding that we are part of the purchasing chain is important. I don’t believe that this is a problem that needs to be fixed by raising prices at the end of the retail chain. The reality is that the people that are making the most money off of slavery are the people that are doing the enslaving themselves. What we need is for companies to engage, because they are the ones that write the checks across the supply lines. If they don’t engage and force greater standards from the people that are sourcing their materials that make their products, then we are not going to be able to get any synergy and millions of people will perish in the fray.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

Does the boycotting of products ever work or does it create a false sense of achievement and self-satisfaction without getting to the root cause?

It is quite clear that boycotts have worked in the past but in the 21st century, boycotts have become a little less impactful and a little easier to stave off. I think that businesses expect a kind of expect a boycott posture from consumers who are trying to demand more out of their products. It’s completely surprising for a company to see a group like ours that says, “We are here to help and partner with you.” Companies don’t know what to do when you come to them with a carrot instead of a stick. That is the posture we are choosing. It’s the most strategic posture. It may not be the most cathartic, but it’s the most strategic to achieving our goals, which is ending slavery in supply chains.

What do you say to those who feel that boycotting products only moves the problem elsewhere? (i.e. to a different country)  

I think that is true. One of the things that boycotting does is that it turns on a light bulb for people. You can’t deny the fact that it is an education tool. When consumers know and understand things, that puts a lot of tension in the marketplace and that’s a good thing. The reality is that most people just don’t know where their products come from. People are busy, they have jobs and school and all the other things that take up their lives. What we want to be able to do is give consumers an understanding that their stories matter in the fight to end one of the greatest travesties of our time. I think that through understanding who you are and where you are, not just as a consumer, but also as a person, matters to those who are trapped in slavery. I think that is a story that I could get behind, and I think that everyone has a little bit of time and energy to invest themselves in that story.

What do you think the best solution to the issue is – and most importantly why? Consumer awareness through social media, corporate action, or government intervention and legislation?

Government intervention and legislation has a limited affect right now. It’s a marriage. We have legislation; we are just not doing anything with it. On our books it says we can’t import slave made goods but we definitely are. It’s more about the market, which really determines what is going to happen here. If you want to make a compounded effect, a systemic affect, by saying those fancy words I mean to help a lot of people, you have to do it from the place that it matters the most- the market place. Nobody likes slavery. If we can just prove that, I think we actually have a shot at saving millions of people.

Justin Dillon Slavery Footprint

Surely capitalism itself – means that somewhere along the line, people are being exploited?

It doesn’t have to be. I think that is a very unimaginative view of what capitalism can be. We believe that if you have a free market, free people make the best products you can have. That translates into more money for businesses, better products for consumers, and better prices overall.

Where do you see the project in 5 years time?

Five years from now I would like to see products in my home that have the “Made In A Free World” marking on it. I would like to see brands view our work as positive engagement, as positive as organic or as positive as environmentally safe products. I think making products that are free from slavery is a fantastic goal. And is actually one that we have achieved before and that we should be able to achieve again.