An Interview with Brian Iselin, Founder and CEO of the Non-Profit slavefreetrade

This interview was conducted by Marta Piazza, contributing writer for Sense & Sustainability. slavefreetrade is a Swiss non-profit association originally founded in Geneva in 2016. With a 100% volunteer team, slavefreetrade built the world’s first human rights compliance platform – at the intersection of freedom, business, and human rights.


How have the first steps of slavefreetrade been? Where has the whole idea come from?

I worked as an Australian Federal Agent and then moved into global counter-slavery operations. I have done that for the last 17 years. The idea for slavefreetrade arose in that time. I would come back from a mission often drained from the violence and sadness of the circumstances. To me, it was an important experience and one best shared to reduce the burden. So, I started telling friends, family, and colleagues about it. People, even those closest to me, would care about this for a day, but eventually would be back out to buy without question. Because there is no choice. It got me thinking that something needed to change. I find people get overwhelmed by the horror and the fact they have a role in it, and cannot process that. So, they send the images to the back of their mind and, once buried, they stay there. I call it “Care-for-a-day syndrome” – a self-protection mechanism.

I wanted to give people something real they could do to change things, so I grounded the project on three lines:

  • Immediacy: The delivery of information at the time and place that consumers need to make a difference. This empowers.
  • Immersion: Providing consumers with human rights information on products, a kind of immersive journey right down the products’ lifecycle. This informs.
  • Veracity: The information delivered must be independently verifiable, demonstrable, and accessible to consumers. This assures.

Speaking about technology, can you explain how slavefreetrade’s platform works and what added value it has, compared with other risk assessment platforms?

Our platform is best described as a hybrid of conventional and distributed ledger (aka blockchain) technology. We use cryptography to protect people and information. It’s a cloud-based platform, like Salesforce. When a company joins, the platform starts an audit, investigating processes and policies to confirm the company’s alignment with slavefreetrade’s values. For instance, mandatory requirements include grievance resolutions mechanisms and a child labour policy, inter alia. If the company complies with mandatory requirements, it proceeds and all staff are registered securely.

Then the platform starts horizontal assessment and monitoring. The organisation’s human rights performance is assessed in real time through questions derived from international human rights law. The truthfulness of every answer is verified by 15 integrity layers.

Simultaneously, the platform initiates a vertical process, supply chain discovery and mapping. This maps entire supply chains. In this phase, the company registers its 1st tier suppliers, which are invited to the platform. Each supplier goes through precisely the same process. This is reproduced down the entire supply chain, tier by tier, automatically. It does not matter what size the organization has, 2 or 200,000, the platform sorts it out easily, quickly, at low cost, and for just 20 minutes of staff time a year.

A CEO sitting in her office in London has access to a dashboard with the map of both her entire workforce and supply chains of her company. She can view in detail her company’s human rights performance, and of every supplier or investee, all in real time. At the same time, it means a consumer walking into a shop can scan a product of her company and be aware the human rights record for the product, before deciding whether to buy it or not. It’s all about transparency.

Quoting Kaya Dory, “In countries with emerging economies, there are an estimated 2 billion new consumers waiting to buy the latest trends. We are racing against the clock to include poorer countries in more sustainable manufacturing models, so they can produce clothing locally and more sustainably”. Don’t you think that ethical consumerism is still a phenomenon for the benefit of a few privileged, western people? How should sustainability professionals build a bridge to reach less-income countries and trigger cultural changes in their societies?

Ethical consumerism is an unknown, fascinating piece of the sustainability puzzle: we know that ethical consumption is on the rise, at least in the global north, but there is no gender, geographical, educational, or other demographics that can define who the ethical consumer is. The only thing we do know is that ethical consumers speak to each other, and gravitate toward good actors. So, regardless of where they are and who they are, sustainability professionals must bind ethical consumers together and boost cohesion. And remember social change does not need everyone to be involved. We just need some; sufficient mass of ethical consumers. If ethical consumers in those privileged places are able to change the market demand, the market will incentivise good behaviour down the chain, pushing businesses to change their way of production. And, finally, we’ll see impact also in those downstream communities.

The United Nations acknowledge that public procurement can be a “lever for extending the practice of corporate human rights due diligence in local economies and global supply chains.” Do you see the potentiality for less-developed countries and low-income administrations, too? Are you targeting these actors in the Global Sourcing Initiative (GSI)?

For now, we are targeting western institutional regarding procurement, but there is great potential for all institutional buyers to do better. Procurement agencies often work with few, and reducing numbers, of staff. And they often lack time or resources to explore the supply chain of every bidder. But institutions are the world’s biggest consumers; they play a very important role as a demand-driver and can lead by example.

Our Global Sourcing Initiative (GSI) – a procurement window on the platform – includes an e-procurement plug-in. Tenderers which are on the platform simply have to check a box on the procurer’s website as part for their bid, and the procurement agency can see the bidder’s human rights performance. Procurement agencies can know all they need to know about the human rights compliance of every bidder. In other words, the GSI makes it easier (and cheaper) to access to the human rights records of bidding companies.

What are the next challenges for slavefreetrade to create a world “made in freedom”?

Firstly, we need to communicate that we exist and that a “slavefree-world” is possible. For that, we must gather good actors, so they know what we are doing and invite them to participate.

Once we have created trust in slavefreetrade, we need to focus on connecting good consumers, good institutions, and good businesses, jointly creating demand for “slavefree.” Most importantly, we need to make this demand visible through communication to potential suppliers to make things right.

Ethical consumers easily connect, via apps, social media, etc., but businesses are also willing to cluster. One might expect they want to differentiate themselves, but businesses will happily cluster specifically where it is a shortcut to consumers. The ethical market is precisely that kind of place.

Never before has it been possible to render transparent the entirety of a supply chain. Supply chains have, until now, been about products, colours, sizes, prices, characteristics. Now, with slavefreetrade, the humans in workplaces come into focus. Otherwise, we can tell horror stories forever and it’s not going to change anything.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on June 25, 2019.


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