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What's the acceptable number of slaves to have in your supply chain?

“How many slaves do you have in your supply chain?” isn’t the usual conversation opener that CEOs expect to have, but it’s one that Justin Dillon, Founder of Made in a Free World makes a point of asking. “It tends to make them sit up and focus,” he said, during our conversation during last week’s SAP AribaLive event. Founded in 2011, Justin set up the company after hearing harrowing stories about the modern day slavery that lies hidden deep within some of our supply chains.

The trouble was, Dillon explained, that people tended to think of slavery as either over there, or back then. People struggled to see it as something relevant to them and the clothes they wore, the food they ate and the smart phone they used. In fact it was something that he’d discovered in the supply chain for the iPhone that led him to write to Steve Jobs. And when to his surprise, Jobs wrote back, he knew he was on to something.

But modern day slavery is a $150bn industry, so he knew he needed to create a solution that would solve multiple challenges. It’s Dillon’s view that doing the right thing shouldn’t cost more, and that having slavery in your supply chain isn’t just unethical, it’s lazy and stems from a poverty of imagination. Which is something that I can’t imagine plagues Dillon too often, a one time entertainer and film maker, he likes big challenges and the chance to make a lasting difference.

Back in 2011, he started by partnering with the United States State Department to build the world’s first ever Slavery Footprint platform, combining product data with consumer purchase data, providing a footprint to 30 million people worldwide. But Dillon insists it’s not about naming and shaming, but more about shining a light on an issue that often companies didn’t know existed. He pointed out that it has to run on trust and that it's important to focus on the long term. With the integration of their platform with SAP Ariba’s cloud based solution, there’s now an economy of scale. The companies within the platform can share policies, procedure and purchases, and where risks and unethical activities comes to light, the companies have the power to do something about it.

Dillon also works direct with the murkier side of our supply chains in the field, and he spoke about the work he was doing in Ghana, and some of the difficulties it involves. He said that some of the workers in the fishing industry were as young as 5 years old and where horrifically, it isn't unheard of for them to lose their lives after becoming entangled in the nets. But he said, dealing with the issue isn’t always clear cut as you might think. Often, those in charge of the children were one time child labourers themselves, so hard as it is sometimes, it’s important to work within the environment that you find. Dillon has set up a number of “safe villages” in Ghana and also in India. The villages are designed to educate the children, protect them and reintegrate them back into the lives they should have had. With Corporate Social Responsibility an increasing important topic, organisations are not longer able to ignore any human rights abuses that may in the past have remained opaque or univestigated.

At the start of our conversation, we’d talked about one of AribaLive’s running themes of “purpose” and Dillon sees it as something of a venn diagram, where different elements can join up to unveil a sweet spot that perhaps wasn't appreciated before, and provides an opportunity to make a real difference once it’s identified. And that’s a little bit like Dillon’s journey itself – it might not be immediately obvious that a singer and entertainer would break into the technology world, but talking to him, the route doesn’t seem so strange at all, and as we spoke about PPN and where we're  based (near Oxford) we ended the conversation talking about famous Oxford band, Radiohead. And as they prepare to headline tomorrow night's Glastonbury, now's also a good time to remember some of the work they did to highlight some of the issues around modern day slavery too:

Radiohead, MTV EXIT and USAID - All I need  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xHfBAKMcCc