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Justin Dillon Headshot

If Brands Want Trust, They Can't Have Slaves

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A few years ago I was prepping to launch the website for my first film, Call+Response, which tackles the issue of human trafficking. As we were passing around ideas, one of our designers popped off with, "Hey, do you think Steve Jobs knows if there's slavery in his iPhone?" A wave of shrugs moved around the table. "Lets ask him, he's the only one who answers his emails." Another wave of shrugs.

So from his Macbook Pro, he penned the following letter, "Steve, does my iPhone use tantalum mined by slave labor? I'm sitting in a board room in San Francisco with a group of tech guys who believe you are aware of this issue and because of your public company restrictions, will not respond to this email -- prove them wrong". We all went back to work expecting that to be the end of it.

Being a musician, I took on the issue through the lens of music, establishing the idea that popular music is in fact a product of slavery. Our film proves that just about everything we use is tainted with slavery. It's in everything: Candy bars to baby wipes, action figures to smart phones. The challenge is that most slavery exists at the murky bottom of supply chains. My web team and I were trying to figure out a way to break the fourth wall of the film and insert this reality into people's everyday lives. Easy, right?

Six hours go by and an email pops up: "I have no idea. I'll look into it. -Steve ", along with the email signature "sent from my iPhone." No boiler plate CSR Report. No deflections. Just three vulnerable words: I don't know. These three words were followed up with four equally powerful words: I'll look into it. The coupling of those two statements just happened to match the narrative of my film. Call and Response. Tension and Release. Verse and Chorus. Oblivion and Action. Steve managed to package the very journey I was trying to take my viewers on in seven simple words.

We launched our next project, Slaveryfootprint.org, last fall on the 149th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. This site asks "How Many Slaves Work For You?". Our team dug deep into the supply chains of over 400 different consumer products and determined the likely number of slaves it takes to make each of those products, including such items as laptops and smart phones. The only thing we didn't do was name and blame individual brands. We strategically chose to remain brand agnostic and received plenty of push back because of it. The desire to call out the worst offenders is completely understandable, but is it strategic? The reality that I cannot walk out of my home in the morning without wearing, eating, or communicating through something that was made by slaves is unacceptable. The tension lies in the fact that there is no quick solution. There's no switch to turn. There's no single law to pass. Naming and shaming a brand may feel good, but does anything really change?

Modern day slavery is a shadow economy where profits are mostly realized at the commodities level, not the brand level. It will never go away simply because of cathartic reactions. Human rights abuses have sustained against well-meaning catharsis for hundreds of years. It's going to require a paradigm shift in order to break a wildly profitable system like supply chain slavery. I'm wondering what it would look like to actually work WITH the brands who are brave enough to utter those three precious words: I don't know.

Apple's new CEO, Tim Cook, recently singled out forced labor in their latest sustainability report. He admitted they hadn't done enough and that they would do more. Cook, like his former boss, took what I consider to be a bold move. They made themselves publicly vulnerable. Instead of retracting and dodging, they engaged. You can say they did it because they had to, but the reality is they did it. On top of that they doubled down on their commitment by bringing in an outside auditor to "look into it" as Jobs put it.

At the end of the day, brands want our trust. The marketplace is full of shiny objects vying for our attention and money. Money is simply the manifestation of trust. Mutual trust requires vulnerability. We can kick the shins of the brands we love, or we can take the relationship to second base. If brands want my trust, I require two things: Vulnerability and commitment to look into it. I've made myself vulnerable. I took my Slavery Footprint and found out I have 49 slaves working for me. Brands, it's your move.