Made In A Free World (MIAFW) has developed a platform to uncover the dirty secret concealed in supply chains around the world: the enduring prevalence of forced labour.

The software analyses every aspect of a company's supply chain, from the extraction of raw materials to final product assembly, to help them identify and mitigate the risk of modern slavery.

Image: iStock/RomoloTavani
Image: iStock/RomoloTavani

"It measures it in a way to give them a way to move forward. because we don't believe you can address a problem unless you can measure it," says Justin Dillon, the founder and CEO of MIAFW.

That problem may be less visible than it was in the past, but slavery remains a widespread practice.

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country to abolish slavery, but hidden away in farms, fields, fisheries, mines, and brothels there are more slaves than ever before. The Global Slavery Index estimates that almost 46 million people in 167 countries are in some form of forced labour.

The migrant crisis has exacerbated their plight. The European Union experienced the largest increase in slavery of any region of the world in 2017, according to a report by analytics company Verisk Maplecroft.

The risk is increasing in 20 of the bloc's 28 member states. They include the UK, where 10-13,000 people are still enslaved, 200 years after the country abolished the slave trade.

In 2015, the government introduced the Modern Slavery Act to tackle the problem. The legislation gives law enforcement agencies new powers, maximum life sentences for perpetrators and enhanced protections for victims.

The act contains a provision designed to increase supply chain transparency by requiring large businesses to publish measures they have taken in the last 12 months to ensure their organisation and produce is free of slavery.

MIAFW's cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform provides a cost-effective way for them comply with the UK Modern Slavery Act and ensure their business practices are ethical. The platform is known as FRDM, an acronym that contains its function: Forced Labor Risk Determination and Mitigation.

The FRDM platform

"The way it works is a company will give us their spend data and we'll analyse if for them and build them a dashboard," says Dillon, a former musician whose first involvement in the anti-slavery movement was hosting benefit concerts.

"Spend data can be what they're buying, who they're buying it from, how much they're paying, any information they can give us. Then we're able to run that through our algorithm and our knowledge base."

This knowledge base is built on the United Nations Standard Products and Services Code (UNSPSC), a classification system for most products and services available to buy and sell around the world.

There are more than 54,000 items on the UNSPSC. MIAFW's proprietary database includes the components that each of them contains, down to the individual raw materials and the labour input.

The database is connected to the SAP Ariba Network, a digital marketplace for millions of trading partners across 190 countries. Any company that uses the Ariba Network to manage their supplier relationships can access MIAFW's intelligence about its purchasing processes.

Users of the FRDM platform can upload information about their purchases including the item category and the countries where they buy them.

Companies often aren’t aware of the sub-manufacturers behind their finished products. The MIAFW software crawls the web and analyses as many as 1 million articles about trade flows, minerals, and migration data, and then visualises this to map out areas of risk in the supply chain.

That information is loaded into the company's custom dashboard. The company claims it can analyse the risk of modern slavery in the supply chain of every service and product in each country, from the category of good to the raw materials it contains, and develop a plan to mitigate it.

For example, electric cars are powered by lithium-ion batteries and a key material in these batteries is cobalt, usually obtained as a by-product of nickel and copper mining in Africa.

MIAFW claims it can identify where cobalt is entering the batteries and then provide companies with a heat map of where forced and child labour is likely to be occurring. The software looks at every point in the supply chain, from the raw materials to the tier-one component suppliers and the final product itself.

"We use predictive analytics tied against our own database to be able to understand where slavery might be entering into the supply chain," says Dillon.

"It could be solvents in Poland that go into furniture that's being assembled in Russia that's being sold out of Michigan. Our data ties into all the different components all the way down."

The company can link all these suppliers to their purchases, track their mitigation efforts against industry norms, and comply with legal and regulatory standards, such as the aforementioned Modern Slavery Act.

MIAFW history

MIAFW emerged from a website that Dillon launched in 2011 called Slavery Footprint that asks visitors "How Many Slaves Work For You?" Once they enter data about their consumption habits it answers the question for them in a graphic showing the number of slaves it takes to make each of the products that they purchase.

The project had won numerous awards and a namecheck from Barrack Obama before Dillon began to develop his current venture. The first incarnation of the platform launched 18 months ago.

MIAFW currently counts a number of Fortune 500 companies among its customers from sectors such as retail, chemicals and aerospace, although Dillon wants them to remain anonymous for now.

Companies are often attacked for the unethical practices that go into the production of their goods or services. These can be difficult to identify, whether they would like to or not. MIAFW aims to measure the problem and cut it off at the root rather than focus on the results that sprout on the surface.

"Our essential value to the world is that we are separating signal from noise around this issue," says Dillon. "It's an empathic business tool. It is not an activist tool at all.

"In fact, sometimes activists are quite critical of what we're doing because we are making it easy for companies to address this."

MIAFW has concentrated on corporate clients since it launched FRDM, but Dillon hopes to eventually return to hisconsumer roots.

"I think a few years down the road, we'll actually be able to hand back to consumers a way in which they can interact with this data, and start making their own informed choices," he says.

"We really believe that there is a movement happening around transparency that's going to start to find its way to play out at the cash register in a way that's not confusing, with a million different labels, talking about a million different things."