Winner of the Rethink Supply Chains Innovation Challenge!

RethinkSupplyChains_WinnerAnnouncement_FB

Sustainability Incubator and Trace Register, a seafood traceability firm, have teamed up to offer the Labor Safe Digital Certificate, winning the Rethink Supply Chains Challenge on May 15, 2016.

The Innovation Challenge to Rethink Supply Chains is a technology competition hosted by the Partnership for Freedom.

Announced by President Obama September 2012, the Partnership for Freedom is a public-private partnership to spur innovative solutions to human trafficking challenges.

Partners include Humanity United, the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of State, and the Department of Labor. Private efforts are supported by Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative, the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund, and a growing list of private donors. All funding for prizes is provided by private donors.

We’re fit for purpose. Why is that so radical?

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.49.51 AM

The idea of the Labor Safe Screen idea came from a handful of people committed to sustainable fishing and livelihoods:

Transfers of fish and people at sea are very complicated, but generally records are available to identify the landing vessel and the subsequent supply chain.  Factories in seafood hubs like Thailand are generally well financed and have systems in place to segregate materials from different catching vessels if there is a reason to do so.  If there is demand or a specification from a buyer to trade in this way then it is possible from a systems perspective.  Subsequent audits can be carried out to check compliance.

This idea is radical because it’s just regular food business.   What sets it apart is the topic of slavery, and its nuances and tremendous consequences for business and producers.

Sparked by a question in 2012 about unpaid working conditions for Burmese crew on Thai boats, asked by Yangon-based Andrew Kirkwood, head of the UN Lift Fund (Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund), Dr.s Katrina Nakamura, Trevor Ward, Pramod Ganapathiraju, and Iain Pollard had a series of conversations about what if..?   What if seafood companies could address slavery like they do sustainability, meaning directly between buyer and seller?  Could the same type of benefits be generated, like preferred standing with buyers?  Food companies look into fishing origins to better manage their supply chains, say for food safety and regulatory compliance.  Could their own working knowledge and trading requirements make a difference for producers?

If we could build it into procurement, in a really simple way, and companies used it, great, but how would we know if things are getting any better?

Honestly we didn’t know.  Together we acknowledged this is consequential stuff and took a vow to do no harm.  Then, we dove in.  We made ourselves accountable to human rights experts and in return they significantly improved our naive ideas.  (We thought we were rigorous scientists, holy cow, we were awed by Lori Bishop, Rebecca Surtees, Paul Buckley, Matt Friedman, Phil Robertson, Lisa Rende Taylor and more).  We completed a tremendous amount of experimentation, design, peer review and trips back to the white board before we got to workable units scientifically and the technological side parameterized in 2014, thanks to support for development from Humanity United. Then artist Jakkai Siributr asked, who are you working with on the ground?  We’d been working with experts at the agency and institute level but not on the ground.  We were blessed to meet the team at the Labour Rights Promotion Network in Thailand.  We started listening and finding ways to bring their sightline into the screen to ask better questions about recruitment and producer safety.  Dominic Chakra Thomson joined us and worked with Thai Union on a supplier survey.  It’s not a slavery survey.  It collects the kind of information seafood sellers want to know about origins and inputs.

Two years more were invested and the Labor Safe Screen is grounded.  It’s connected with the authorities, with frontline and seafood conservation NGOs, and with food companies.  It is a low cost plug-in offering risk assessment and verification practices from inside the sourcing programs food companies use every day.  It’s going inside Trace Register.  It’s powering the Social Responsibility Risk Tool for Global Fisheries.

Why is this fresh?  The Labor Safe Screen is a plug-in, not an add-on.  Its purpose is to build more security into seafood trading for its user, and for the product they want to continue to trade, which is made of course by a producer who deserves to be safe.  Labor Safe Screen is not a standalone, comprehensive, or labor-overhauling program.  There are no open-ended consulting fees or membership rates.  The food company decides how far it wants to go.  Every dollar invested goes directly to risk ID and product advancement to labor safety.  How? Suppliers’ knowledge is employed to close out risks. Checks and balances are provided by the evidence published by authorities (U.S. Departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security) and the frontline organizations and human rights organizations with eyes on the ground.

The Labor Safe Screen is offered by an independent, for-profit company based in Honolulu and operating with very low overhead.

The Sustainability Incubator is an advisory firm helping food companies advance and solve human rights challenges.  We are a tactical company putting teams together wherever needed to help companies face issues with a clear strategy.   It’s all user-designed and user-operated.  Why did we set up this way, instead of crafting ourselves as standards-setters or trying to build a big program?

Gets back to the vow and the biggest question:  How would we know if things are getting better?

Food will taste better when producers are safe from slavery.  We will know things are better when human rights experts can adjust their programming support away from seafood to another sector needing it more.  Our premise is business is a force for good in society and helps this shift, in seafood as in apparel and minerals.  Buyers and sellers of our food, much of which is imported with a mix of contents including some unknown origins, are good and honest and courageous people wanting the same dignity for producers as they expect for themselves.  Buying and selling moves money and reaches places which change peoples lives.

Where slavery has been abolished, it didn’t happen because slave owners suddenly saw the light.  It happened because of adjustments, in the economy and the culture, and in individuals, realizing it would not make life unlivable or business less profitable, and might even make it more secure for the long-haul.  Slavery ends when people can see one another.  Modern day slavery ends in food when we connect what we eat everyday to who made it for us and what that life might be like.  We will know things are better when the idea of ending slavery in food production is not fraught with risk itself, but is a completely normal even joyous part of food business.

Information for trading

Seafood is a no frills business sector.  Traders need fish to fill orders and they need information — to clear customs swiftly, to show the quality details to meet buyer specs.  Seafood is also a sensitive food product.  Supply chains manage these sensitivities and good-tasting seafood is delivered every day.  There’s no fluff, but it’s sophisticated.

This is the basic frame for the Labor Safe Screen, really for all programs of the Sustainability Incubator.

The Labor Safe Screen isn’t a gotcha tool but rather a way for seafood buyers to screen, prioritize, and drill down where needed.  If corrective actions are needed among buyers and sellers, we help focus to reduce risks.  We don’t dictate or prescribe or rank.  We don’t offer a green check mark for signing up. We help companies close out risks taking a “roll up your sleeves” approach.

Now, this approach is nothing new and already embedded in the industry and used everyday for multiple things.  Equally it can be used for a food safety issue, for example for managing mercury levels in a finished product.  The twist is the Labor Safe Screen finds slavery hotspots.  We scan production for any places where risks to business are severe or high because the authorities say slavery is occurring.  We are especially vigilant looking for those slavery risks to business which are the most consequential to vulnerable human beings. Where would an effort to reduce slavery risks to business truly improve the safety for producers?  We are especially committed to finding these overlaps because our goal is to help investors in seafood to face issues with a clear strategy, and producers are investors too.

What can one company do?

To tackle human rights issues down supply chains to producers, and up chains to regulators, there must be provisions for trading information and sharing costs, or definitely for sharing capacity with suppliers at no extra cost.

For a company with a strong relationship with a few suppliers, it may be possible to close out exposures directly. For larger companies, getting the information and accountability needed will require a tiered or phased approach that shows a little more understanding of how difficult it’s going to be to show full visibility behind a product.

If, for example, you buy shrimp that comes from a large importer or distributor, under their proprietary brand, you may have no relationship with the importer, much less the producer. So it starts with asking the importer or distributor where they get their shrimp. They’re not going to give a clear answer because they won’t immediately know and must leave room for themselves to buy shrimp on the open market if needed. So it’ll mean contacting the producers that provide the majority of the distributor’s private label shrimp and starting to ask about working conditions. They’ll simply say there is no slavery in their supply, so it’ll require preparations on the background and having the right questions to drill down into subbed arrangements, auction and spot buys, and so on.

In some cases, finding a new supply is an option, but it shouldn’t be the first choice. Instead, engaging suppliers and improving oversight can cause more positive impact.  Posing the right questions about the origins and inputs of seafood supplies builds accountability and coverage for this issue.  Doing this systematically will reduce risks geometrically and show due diligence to investors, regulators, and others.

These steps work because they build a knowledge system and produce information that has value in trading.  Again, you could use these same steps to close out risks of many different kinds.

Slavery risks can be addressed in this way by business, but beyond the technical, beyond the technological, we are still talking here about an issue so deeply troubling that talking about it produces a very human experience.  The ‘will’ to roll up the sleeves and deal with this directly is not something automatic to be expected from companies.  I’ve written before about the double whammy of slavery in seafood.  I’ve also written about the difference  TLC makes to seafood’s taste. (See earlier blogs.)

Over the past months I’ve been trying to figure out how best to communicate the “facts” about slavery in fishing and seafood in a way which can motivate and inspire rather than discourage.  One of the things which needed to happen was for people to see it’s real, and documented by policy-makers worldwide.  Beyond that, where does it happen in fishing and how severe?  The ILO, US Departments of State and Labor, the media, and some NGOs like Environmental Justice Foundation have taken the steps of pushing the evidence into the public domain.  The US and UK governments have proceeded to regulatory reform.  However, something’s still missing.  The big thing is how to inspire?

How can seafood businesses help governments regulate these matters better?  Does it mean starting with private regulation inside some supply chains, where things have gotten carried away?  The Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force is doing this.  It hasn’t spread to other products beyond shrimp, but is incredibly effective.  Check out their website.  There are 38 companies signed on.  Some of them like Morrisons in the UK are having suppliers complete vessel registers.  It’s fantastic.

The Labor Safe Screen was produced by a barn raising.  We have had an enormous investment from people who care about moving the dial on modern day slavery AND care about good food — from human rights and seafood experts and terrific organizations like Humanity United.  Offering to try help make this issue go down a little more gently is our way of sharing back the TLC.  We offer a plug in with an algorithm and survey and reality checking safeguards for risk ID, but it’s not a panacea and nothing if it doesn’t make people’s livelihoods safer, from boat to boardroom.

We are looking for partners in seafood and beyond seafood who see business as an agent of good in society, who respect food business like we do as a provider we all rely upon.  Who doesn’t want to eat food made with the best information?  It’s pretty personal.

Aloha

Katrina Nakamura

Founder, Labor Safe Screen