It’s not even clear that technology itself matters. Simple tools with actionable plans could be more effective than fancy, expensive ones. For example, one of the most successful tools is the self-described tech-agnostic Laborlink, a product of Good World Solutions, which supplies workers around the world with a secure, anonymous method of providing information about working conditions in their factories. It addresses one of the key weaknesses of the system that was implemented after the initial wave of revelations about working conditions in the 1990s, in which auditors enter factories at regular intervals and conduct checklist walk-through examinations.
“Auditing just does not have that many data points,” said Beth Holzman, Director of Engagement and Operations at Laborlink. “It’s specifically focused on a [narrow] compliance checklist to understand what is happening in a factory and doesn’t really get into any wider analysis, which can reflect more the reality on the factory floor.”
Auditing is haphazard and unreliable, with well-documented cases of fake reports. Moreover, workers’ voices are only tangentially included, with Holzman estimating most audits only include statements from 10 to 20 workers maximum. As factories and plantations can have upward of 1,000 workers, this can be woefully inadequate.
Laborlink thrives partly because it does not rely on the latest smartphones or high-tech, remote-sensing technology. It utilizes whatever technology people already have. In Cambodia or India, this can be simple feature phones with SMS capability, whereas in China, the ubiquitous app WeChat is commonly used.
“We really are trying to ensure that, in the use of technology, we’re putting workers at the heart of this process.”
“We really are trying to ensure that, in the use of technology, we’re putting workers at the heart of this process,” said Holzman. “They have the ability to provide data and can use tech to better their own engagement.”
This approach has been successful in creating knowledge about what’s taking place in factories and giving companies that care an opportunity to address those concerns.
“We’ve reached a million workers and gathered 3.5 million data points,” said Holzman. “That information can be shared with factory managers to say, ‘How would you actually work to improve supply chain practices?'”
Other low-tech actors making a difference are NGOs. It is because of them that we have supply-chain accountability legislation, and it’s often them, or their partners on the ground, who are spreading the word about unsafe working conditions or illegal deforestation.
“Improvements in technology at the local level have been instrumental in communities’ ability to participate in the protection of their forests,” said Emma Lierley, Forest Communications Manager with Rainforest Action Network. “And improvements in this area could be of great benefit.”
But RAN does not expect technology itself to be the solution. It has been working on supply-chain issues since its inception, and it focuses on both environmental degradation and human rights violations in tropical-forest regions. To RAN, the idea that multinational corporations lack knowledge about what’s really happening in their supply chains when it can find out and publish verifiable reports is incredulous.
“Time and time again we have seen companies use new tools and technology to further obfuscate the issue rather than to truly take responsibility for the conflicts in their supply chain,” said Lierley. For example, shipping data on who is buying and selling palm oil could illuminate how supply chains connect to labor violations widely documented in Southeast Asia, but it is prohibitively expensive and often inaccessible to third parties like NGOs or journalists. Similarly, access to mapping data about land ownership could allow NGOs to connect illegal deforestation and fire to global companies, but the data remains under lock in Indonesian government and corporate databases.
“The lack of transparency in palm oil supply chains comes down to a lack of willpower, not a lack of tools,” said Lierley.
This can be demonstrated by the companies that have made progress. Years ago Nike was the poster child for labor violations in its subcontractors’ factories, but after years of hard work in collaboration with NGOs and academia, it has become a model in the shoe industry, recently releasing a map of all of its factories. Similarly, Intel, once complicit along with most of the technology industry as likely using conflict minerals, has, after doing a detailed public analysis with the NGO Resolve, officially declared its supply chain as conflict free.
Neither used fancy technology as an end-all solution, and both spent years figuring out an actionable plan. The problem itself was clear from the start.
“If you want to know what is going on in your supply chain, you don’t need tech to find that,” said Moote. “You need technology to solve the problem.”