To save the world we had to change it

Photo by Alex Iby

Let’s say you are standing on the edge of a rushing river and hear a cry for help from someone who is drowning. You summon your inner life guard, jump into the river and swim the victim to safety. As soon you get to shore, you hear another voice calling from the river, so you jump in and do the same. And then another voice. And another. After the twentieth rescue you ask yourself, “why are all these people falling in the river?” You have a choice to make: keep saving people drowning in the river or run up shore to prevent them from falling in.

That was the question I was wrestling with five years ago regarding the direction of the charity organization I founded. Should we try to save the world (jump in the river) or should we try to change the world (fix the problem). It’s not an easy question to answer given the problem that we were trying to solve was modern day slavery. So rather than choose we decided to do both. That’s when our charity (Made In A Free World) launched a business (FRDM pronounced free-dom). Here’s how we did it.

Made In A Free World was born in a basement conference room at the Midtown Sheraton Hotel in New York City at 9AM September 22, 2011. We were there to launch a new website called Slaveryfootprint.org, a survey that allows consumers to learn how many slaves it takes to support their lifestyle. We partnered with the United States State Department on the project and set the one year goal of getting 150,000 people to learn their footprint, which was astronomical given the first question on the site is ‘do you want to know how many slaves work for you?”. That’s not a question you get asked every day. It was also a symbolic goal. September 22, 2012, exactly a year after our launch, was the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. There was no organization to run Slavery Footprint, so Made In A Free World was born. Our name represented the ideal that every consumer has a right to know if they are contributing to modern slavery.

The launch event went on for over an hour and I noticed my mobile phone wasn’t getting reception in the hotel basement, so I stepped outside to check in with team back in San Francisco. We expected a slow steady growth of footprints originating primarily in the United States. Once I emerged to a bustling 7th Avenue my phone began to fill with messages from our team. In one hour Slavery Footprint had gone viral. Consumers from countries like Brazil, Germany, France were on site. Celebrities and politicians were sharing their footprints on social media. The team was freaking out because we didn’t build the site to handle that much traffic at one time. We reached our year goal in one hour and climbed to over 1 million footprints a few hours later when the site finally broke. Freedom broke the internet.

Exactly a year later, we were back at the same Midtown Sheraton, only this time we were invited into the main ballroom for big event. It was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and President Obama was giving a speech on modern slavery. He invited all citizens to go get their slavery footprint. By this point Made In A Free World was an active organization building global consumer awareness and crowd funding global anti-slavery projects. Like most human rights charities we were focused on saving people, but the President did something that changed our trajectory. He endorsed us as the organization to help businesses address slavery in their supply chains. And by us I mean all seven of us. This is where everything shifted.

The early success Slavery Footprint gave us unique access to both the powerful and the powerless. Fortune 500 HQ’s. Child slaves on fishing boats in Ghana. White House Events. Little girls swinging axes in the sparkle mines of India. Mainstream Television Shows. Poor Cambodian fisherman tricked onto ghost fleets. We found ourselves in a 360 immersion class on power. We learned how power is leveraged, clogged, and stolen. This new experience revealed a new conviction: we can save the world through what we give but we can change the world through what we buy. The greatest power in the world is the power of the purchaser. So we decided to go ‘upriver’ to help the world BUY BETTER.

Two thirds of all large companies have no visibility into their supply chain, which means they have no idea if slavery is contributing to their revenue.

Just like the river analogy, in order to fix an intractable social problem, we needed to fix an intractable business problem: supply chain transparency. We sat with dozens of companies and learned they had no idea what conditions were like in their supply chains. As management thinker Peter Drucker says, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure’, so we set out to build a platform where companies could measure human rights risk, allowing them to leverage their incredible buying power to create systemic change in their supply chain. Two thirds of all large companies have no visibility into their supply chain, which means they have no idea if slavery is contributing to their revenue. The platform needed to be simple yet still work on a massive scale. We built a prototype B2B supply chain transparency platform and called it FRDM. Companies input their purchases and FRDM helps them identify where slavery may be occurring their supply chain, all the way down to raw materials like tin and cotton. We took it to market and soon landed our first Fortune 500 customer.

More and more customers signed up. We integrated FRDM into large B2B platforms like SAP which touches $2.4 Trillion in B2B commerce a year. Our charity was growing like a business. So the board of directors and I decided to make a bold and risky move. We decided to split up the operations. Made In A Free World would remain a charitable organization working on awareness and field projects and FRDM would become its own company focused on marketplace solutions. The charity could help save the world and the business could help change it. The charity owns shares of FRDM and 5% of every subscription to our platform is donated to the charity.

All the data today says that global consumers from all demographics will purchase in line with their values as long as it doesn’t cost them any convenience. New laws like the Modern Slavery Acts passed in the UK and Australia require companies to measure slavery in their supply chains. Investors now want companies to report on social returns in addition to expected financial returns. We expect that companies will soon need to make their supply chain transparency efforts as easy to understand as the product stars and reviews you see on Amazon. Sorry, but we simply can’t change the world unless supply chain transparency is that easy for everyone to understand. And we are not there yet.

We still have a long way to go. FRDM is a startup in an emerging category of social tech. We’re part of a new movement of companies whose success is tied to helping both the powerful and the powerless. We are a challenger brand plagued with a cynicism-deficiency-syndrome and driven by the audacious idea that together we can create the world we want through the power of our purchases. We’d love to have you join us. Sign up on our website if you want to jump on the FRDM train.