Consumers with a social conscience have a new tool to inform their shopping decisions. Free2Work is a mobile app that allows shoppers to scan a product barcode and get an instant rating of the manufacturer’s track record on human rights and other labor issues.
“We want to give consumers information when they need it most—when they shop,” explains Kilian Moote. He is leading development of Free2Work (F2W) as a project of Not for Sale, a nonprofit organization that combats human trafficking.
David Batstone, co-founder of Not for Sale and professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco, says consumers may be shocked to discover that modern-day slavery affects an estimated 30 million people. “That includes your back yard,” he says. “As consumers, we are complicit in the products we purchase and the restaurants we patronize.” To get at the causes of trafficking, he adds, “we have to go upstream” and raise awareness about supply chain issues.
F2W provides letter-grade ratings and brand comparisons of companies across a number of sectors, including apparel, electronics, shoes, and chocolates. Grades are assigned by F2W researchers who evaluate company policies, transparency and traceability, monitoring and training, and worker rights. The researchers consider publicly available information along with detailed questionnaires and data provided by companies.
Why does Divine Chocolate rate an “A” while Apple gets a “D”? Moote is quick to point out that a poor overall grade doesn’t mean a company uses slave labor. “We are grading a company’s zero-tolerance policies against trafficking,” he says. “If you’re a company that gets a low rating, it means you have no process or management system in place to prevent workers from being abused. We want to encourage companies to move upstream, to be developing practices that protect workers.”
Ratings can be improved—quickly—if companies respond to concerns. “We recognize that supply chains are complex,” explains Batstone. “You could be doing everything possible to protect workers, but then you find out in Delhi there’s a child in a factory you outsource to. How do you remediate when you find a problem? It’s not about perfection. It’s about how you respond.”
F2W is eager not to come across as a “gotcha,” Batstone adds. “We want this to be a transparency tool.”
Eileen Fisher, for example, earns an overall grade of “B+” in the apparel category. According to F2W’s scorecard, the Irvington, N.Y.-based company gets high marks for its policies and transparency but has work to do on the worker rights front. Luna Lee, Eileen Fisher’s human rights specialist, suggests that F2W’s rating system on human rights “could be expanded.” Protecting human rights is an issue the company “takes very seriously,” she adds. Eileen Fisher has provided F2W with extensive information about its policies to protect workers, including self-advocacy mechanisms that are not yet part of the F2W scorecard.
Amy Hall, social consciousness director for Eileen Fisher, encourages customers to use the F2W app to stay current on evolving company policies as well as industry trends. “Our corporate culture is about authenticity and transparency. We’re not hiding anything,” Hall says. Customer feedback “helps us shape our future strategies.”
By providing real-time reporting about human rights issues, F2W may help reset outdated consumer perceptions about specific industries or individual companies. “Advocacy and activism can get locked into old models,” Batstone says. Apparel manufacturers “have been leading the charge for some time,” he says, when it comes to protecting human rights. Meanwhile, the electronics industry is just starting to respond to consumer pressure. “We’re going to see greater movement from electronics,” he predicts, which should lead to better grades across that sector.
One unnamed electronics company “is now sending executives to walk through the whole supply chain so they can understand it,” Batstone adds, and then improve worker protections. “They’re not ready to go public yet,” he adds. But when they are, F2W will be eager to pass along the updates to shoppers.