Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ethics, Crime, and Google: Supply Chain Networks

I recently attended a panel discussion on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at the 2012 Harvard Social Enterprise Conference. The panel consisted of representatives from consumer product companies, such as The The Body Shop and Goodweave, who prioritize human rights considerations in their supply chain management and procurement practices. They spoke of the difficulty in ensuring that suppliers were engaged in fair labor practices or avoiding child labor with such a complicated global web of supply flow and numerous intermediaries. They shared their respective company’s approach to tackling this issue and how it can be translated into consumer loyalty. My takeaway from their presentations was that the goodwill value associated with corporate social responsibility is tradeoff with the higher cost associated with working only with suppliers and manufacturers to guarantee fair labor practices with their employees.

The final panelist, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Sidhartha Kara, shared his research on the changing nature of human trafficking criminal networks. His primary message was that technology, lower cost of transportation/travel, and increased communication is creating a sharp increase worldwide in human trafficking. His research focused primarily on sex workers and modern slavery/indentured servitude. When envisioning supply chain networks we often consider product component logistics or final product delivery, not webs of disenfranchised humans being shuffled from one country or region to another in a life of labor or oppression. What this panelist did not present was what is being done to address this shifting nature of criminal networks. That’s where Google comes in.

The March 2012 article and video (linked above) from The Economist online details how Google has been bringing together diverse stakeholders in the issue of criminal supply chain networks: governments, law enforcement, security experts, software engineers, former victims of human trafficking, heads of ports, and former criminals themselves. Google Ideas, a new in-house think tank, has been fostering strategies about to develop new applications to disrupt criminal supply chains such as the global arms economy. In examining the sinister facets of supply chain networks, we face the following questions:

To what extent should corporations be responsible for ensuring fair labor practices or sustainable sourcing in their supply chains?

What is the role of emerging technology in combating criminal supply chain networks?

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