Faces of slavefreetrade: An interview with our founder and CEO, Brian Iselin

Faces of slavefreetrade: An interview with our founder and CEO, Brian Iselin

As we approach slavefreetrade’s second birthday, we had the chance to catch up with our CEO, Brian to discuss how slavefreetrade is filling in the gaps in the fight against modern slavery, the enabling role of technology in protecting human rights, and upcoming developments at slavefreetrade to look forward to.

As a former soldier and federal agent, you have an extensive background in conducting counter-trafficking and modern slavery operations around the world. In your view, what are the common risk factors associated with modern slavery? 

When we talk about modern slavery, it’s such an incredibly expansive term as it includes so many different conditions, from human trafficking to slavery and servitude, forced labor, child labor, and exploitative working conditions. So, it’s hard to point out just one thing, but there are vulnerabilities [exposing victims] to modern slavery. Vulnerabilities, in particular, are heightened during this pandemic. Other factors include poverty and proximity to a criminal opportunity, that is, an exploitative opportunity. I believe these are the main drivers.  

Of course with a problem as complex as modern slavery, there isn’t just one solution. Would you say however, that there have been more traditional approaches to combating modern slavery, and are they having enough of an impact?

Up till now, and still, states have been addressing modern slavery as a criminal act and taking a criminal justice approach. So they understand that criminals are involved, they train police investigators and judges on how to identify and deal with these cases. For example, setting up hotlines for victims and raising awareness amongst potential victims. Also, a lot of activities have focused on rescuing and rehabilitating victims, and arresting human traffickers or slavers. So this is where actions have been focused principally. In law enforcement terms, we call those supply-side measures.

How is slavefreetrade filling in the gaps in the fight against modern slavery?

I think there are two main points. Firstly, slavefreetrade acts on the demand side, we try to get the right information into the hands of those people who make up the market, so they can utilise their buying preferences responsibly. I’m not just talking about consumers. Government buyers spend 9 trillion dollars a year on public procurement, so that’s a huge force if they start shifting their buying preferences. Investors can also shift their buying preferences to the companies that are doing the right thing. So, the buying power behind all these different audiences is phenomenal. If we can get them to act in a way that transmits the message down the value chain right to workplaces where these global commodities chains start, then we can actually engender change on a structural level. Because when we act only on the supply side, we are not impacting the dimensions of the market, it still perpetuates and grows. So, if we want to shrink the market, we have to tackle the demand side as well. That’s the first thing.

The second big thing is that slavefreetrade takes a systemic approach, we look at the problem as a system in which there are these broken relationships between consumer and retailer, supplier and producer, and employer and employee. Modern slavery is the function of these three broken relationships. So, what we have done is that we designed a behavioural system to build trust and better connect these three relationships. So, the ethical consumer or governmental buyer buys from the ethical supplier, which buys from an ethical producer which treats its staff accordingly.  That’s the behavioural loop we try to create.  

Supply chains today are global and complex, spreading across different countries. How can trust be built amongst the different parties when they don’t know who is on the other end of the supply chain? 

This is the beauty of technology! Blockchain was one of the best ways for us to start learning about how to operate in a trustless world. So, as long as there is sufficient information about each side of the equation, parties can operate together without even knowing each other. You can build trust through a process. For instance, trust between consumers and retailers is at an all-time low, but slavefreetrade can bring them together in a system where they don’t have to trust each other, they can trust the process, the data we are generating.

[If implemented in the workplace], employees would have completely anonymous and confidential access to the system, to give their responses on human rights conditions to employers. In the background, slavefreetrade verifies that the right person is giving that information to the right person who should have it. So that’s the essence of the system that slavefreetrade is working on, to build trust.

Would you say then that the use of such technologies are mostly positive in protecting human rights? How can we best utilise and deploy RightsTech?

I think the world of encryption and blockchain is a piece of that. The world of encryption has developed so much in the last five years. What was not possible before is now possible, so we now can encrypt communications and data. We are also able to secure identities so we can know a person is who they say they are. The technology is an enabler. We could have developed the human rights framework that we have and got those questions out to people in workplaces, [but without the current technology], we couldn’t have done it on the scale that we need to, nor have the same trust-building mechanism. But of course, the technology has downsides, it’s expensive and takes time to develop. We need a lot of specialists, coders, developers, designers, and architects, and then of course we need to build user trust in the technology. 

In the two years since slavefreetrade’s founding, what were some challenges that you faced? 

You know I’ve got to be very honest, the biggest challenge is the lack of funding. We’re a non-profit, so we don’t get access to venture capital. Also, with venture capital, this would usually entail handing over a stake in the company. This is a challenge because we need to maintain our integrity in the whole system as an independent middle party. 

I think another challenge is getting human rights on the agenda. If we look at ESG,  the E (the environment) criteria is so advanced, and there is so much happening. Everyone is recycling plastic in their household, investors are looking at companies that don’t deforest and don’t carry out illegal logging, and so on. But how many households that you know are taking active measures around modern slavery and human rights? A really small percentage [compared to actions related to the environment]. So human rights hasn’t had its moment, the S in ESG is way behind the E. We find that there is a huge lag and that translates not just to individual lives and individual households, but also extends into people’s professional lives. Many companies don’t yet realise the importance of having human rights on the agenda. I think this has got to change. 

I would add that the third challenge for us, is the fact that everything we’re doing is so new, and that there are so many aspects [in the fight against modern slavery]. There is the need to develop the tools and technologies on one hand, and to develop a new framework for understanding human rights in workplaces, on the other. At the same time, we’re also facing companies that don’t yet have human rights on the agenda, individuals who don’t understand what modern slavery is still, the fact that consumers have a role in [fighting] modern slavery, but they are not necessarily locating themselves as part of the equation. So there’s the technological innovation, the conceptual innovation and [raising awareness]. Tackling all of these moving parts can be challenging to manage.

What are some of the most important milestones for slavefreetrade? Which achievements are you most proud of? 

The completion of the human rights framework. This was a very big piece of work and we’re now at the point of having a working paper on it. We’re also putting together a global working group to develop [this framework] into a universal standard. It’s a way of measuring decent work that everyone can and should use! The framework is a universalistic framework that transcends geographies and jurisdiction. We went straight to international human rights law, to the very source of the law, and we’ve developed an agnostic system that only measures human rights.. I’m super proud of being able to roll out such a thing.

I think the other milestone is actually reaching 2 years, to be frank. Most start-ups, most non-profit start-ups fail very early. slavefreetrade is going well, we have around 58 volunteers right now, so it’s quite a strong workforce. The subject grabs people, and the possibility of a solution, especially a fun one, the tech side, that makes it really interesting to people. And also I think people are caught up in our positivity. The fact that slavefreetrade is trying to turn a page on the way that we think about human rights, so we’re not talking to people about blood and chains but rather talking about the light outside the cave, which is what human rights is right? Human rights is not the darkness inside the cave, human rights is the light outside, so let’s celebrate that. I think that positivity is an important message. 

Could you tell us more about what slavefreetrade has in store? What are some upcoming developments for us to look forward to? 

On the human rights framework, the next development is the formalisation of this global working group that will review, improve and ratify the standard, and then help slavefreetrade to put it out there to the global human rights community. So any institution, whether they’re working with ESG investment frameworks or they’re working with the SDGs, anyone looking for a human rights taxonomy can find it. This is a huge step. We’ll have that working group formed at the beginning of 2021, in January. So that’s going to be exciting! 

The other development is on the consumer side. Consumers are a very important target audience, the demand side equation means that we need consumers to mobilise and start thinking about how they’re buying. This could just be small micro-behaviours, such as directing their buying preferences towards companies that are doing the right things.

So that starts with the consumer campaigning app. slavefreetrade has a consumer campaigning app that will be out soon, where a consumer can start a petition or join a petition, for a product that they want to see made in freedom, [which slavefreetrade then puts forth to the producer]. What that means is that consumers who care about modern slavery are able to communicate in a way they haven’t before, with the companies that make those products, through us. The consumer campaigning app is the first invitation for the ethical consumer to take action. I think that a lot of consumers, especially in the run-up towards Christmas and New Year’s, will really resonate with that. Of course, that’s just one of the early steps. The consumer app will go much further.  [In the future], consumers will be able to see and buy products that are made in freedom on their app. So that’s very exciting!

There are so many developments that are taking us towards this world made in freedom. In the next 5 years, what would the social sustainability landscape look like and where do you see slavefreetrade?

We have to keep building the tools that people need and bringing together the rather disparate communities that we’ve talked about [consumer, businesses, investors] in a behavioural loop, so that they are all influencing each other and affecting one another. At the moment, this is missing. However, legislation is pushing companies and organisations in the right direction. Ethical consumers want it, governments are starting to push for it, and there are public procurement rules out there about human rights compliance. This will keep on expanding, so we have to look at ways to ingeniously bring together these parties, in a positive, incentivised way. 

So then we can see a new world of interaction between employer and employee, consumer and retailer, and consumer and worker at the other end of the supply chain. We can bring them together and shrink the distance between them. This is what slavefreetrade can do best. There are organisations doing many many things on modern slavery, on human rights abuses globally, but this is our contribution. 

What action should we be taking now to contribute towards achieving a world made in freedom? 

The best thing for us to do right now is to become aware of the problem and to talk about it. That starts at home through conversations with families and friends, and it expands outwards from there. There’s an old saying “A mind once expanded never regains its original shape”. Once you make people aware that modern slavery exists and where it exists, you’ll never see the world again in the same way. That’s a very powerful tool, that’s where it starts right now. Apart from that join our consumer app, join us as volunteers, donate to slavefreetrade on Facebook or wherever you want, and let’s get this moving! 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)