Child labor, the Clintons, and Changing How Things Are Made.
It was a normal Friday afternoon. Actually, it was February 5, 2016. I was about to head out to meet friends for happy hour and was scanning through the reporting materials that Richardson, Thread’s Haiti Field Manager, had just sent me.
In addition to detailed reports and daily communication, Richardson sends me photos and video updates from Haiti at each step of our supply chain. I watched video footage from a collection center owned by a Haitian entrepreneur named Joseph Jean Paul. Joseph’s center is located in a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince called Molea. Molea surrounds the city dump, Truittier. Thread had expanded our collection network into this area a few months earlier.
The camera spanned to show enormous sacks full of plastic, employees working to separate plastic and remove labels, and then landed on the scale where a collector was pulling a bag of plastic onto the scale for weighing. That’s when my heart sank. I watched a boy, who couldn’t have been more than 13 weigh the plastic he had brought to sell.
I immediately emailed Richardson, Do you know who this boy is? How old is he? Is he in school? His response came back a minute later.
Yes, there were some teenagers there selling plastics to Jean Paul. Those boys are less than 18 years old. This is how these boys earn their lives. The majority of them don’t have any parents, they don’t go to school. They are responsible to feed themselves by collecting plastics.
And there it was. Confirmation that there were kids picking up plastic bottles in our supply chain. The situation we expected to run into sooner or later was staring me in the face.
How do you know there aren’t kids picking up the bottles that go into your fabric?
That’s the question we have gotten every time we have pitched a brand. It’s a question we ask ourselves continually. Instances of child labor are not unheard of in low-income countries. Especially in informal jobs like recycling collection, where individual collectors aren’t hired by anyone, but rather work as freelancers, this step of the supply chain is in constant flux and difficult to monitor.
We worked hard to monitor it though, and for the first few years that we worked in Haiti, we had a small and close-knit enough collection network that we did not experience instances of child labor. Like most companies, we have a Code of Conduct and Child Labor Avoidance Policy in place, but in the poorest parts of the poorest countries these policies don’t always hold up. In 2015, we expanded our supply chain in Haiti, partnering with an additional recycling facility and expanding the collection networks feeding into our plastic supply. We always knew that children collecting recyclables was a possibility in our industry. Now that we had confirmation, we knew it was time to get to work.
Richardson continued to build relationships in Molea. He met with the center owners, interviewed collectors (both adults and children) and started a separate collector database for the adolescents living and working there. Through his work we learned of a group called ACOP (Plastic Collectors Association) that was formed by 13 of the collection center owners in this neighborhood. ACOP’s vision is to provide scholarships for the kids in Molea working to collect plastic from the landfill.
Two weeks after that initial email, Thread’s founder and CEO, Ian visited Molea and talked with several of the kids Richardson and ACOP had identified. In March, I went down with Vivien Luk, Executive Director of the non-profit, Team Tassy which works in the neighborhood next to Molea serving families in a holistic approach to end poverty. (Full disclosure: Ian founded both Team Tassy and Thread though the two organizations are completely separate entities with separate staff and funding.) Viv and I visited with ACOP, spoke to some of the kids, and began to develop a plan of how our organizations could work together to ensure access to safety training and equipment, healthcare, scholarships, and professional development and mentoring.
There are roughly 2,000 recycling collectors working in Truittier and we estimate 200 of them to be children. ACOP and Team Tassy have the relationships, expertise, and connections necessary to ensure trust in the community, access to healthcare, and scholarship programming. Thread can provide safety training, business development and support for families working in the recycling business, as well as access to micro-loans to grow their businesses.
Why don’t we just stop purchasing and using plastic collected by kids in these neighborhoods?
Avoiding the problem doesn’t solve the problem and Thread is in the business of solving big problems. Problems like poverty and trash. Child labor is complicated and nuanced. Children work because they need to support themselves, or because they are providing critical income to their families. We could stop buying from these kids, but someone else would buy from them instead. By impeding access to income from recycling we could push these kids into more hazardous work. We decided we will work with them and their families instead, so that the kids can have access to education and adult family members can learn skills to help them earn more money.
In April, Thread approached the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) with the idea of addressing child labor in recycling collection in our Commitment to Action (CTA). A CGI CTA is expected to address major problems facing our world and are a requirement of all member organizations. Members are encouraged to make commitments that will engage other CGI members, resulting in multi-sector approaches to solving these challenges. CGI helps to facilitate the commitments and make connections that will help realize success. The CTA’s are made public, and are required to have specific timelines, measurable goals, and metrics that are reported annually to chart progress.
CGI was enthusiastic about this commitment approach, so we began working with their team on the draft, the metrics, and began identifying brand partners to join us in this work. It was time to find brands at the global level who would purchase and use the plastic being collected in this community in their products. Without a stable and substantial market, we cannot hope to make lasting change through recycling.
Timberland was a natural partner, having already committed heavily to sustainable sourcing and planting 5 million trees in Haiti. In Spring 2017 they will also be releasing a line of boots and bags using Thread Ground to Good™ fabric.
When we began talking to HP about supplying plastic for their printer cartridges, we were immediately upfront about the challenges that face recycling supply chains in low-income countries. HP recognized the impact they could have by sourcing recycled material from Haiti and by joining us in the effort to bring support and opportunity to the individuals collecting plastic.
Thus began the strategic planning and commitment drafting process. Under the direction of CGI staff we developed a tactical plan, phased over three years, with metrics that will be reported on annually. $300,000 in funding and in-kind donations will be invested directly into the community of Molea. This strategy directly impacts the most vulnerable population of our supply chain, ensuring that dignity and opportunity can be realised by everyone working in this process. This week, the commitment goes public at the Clinton Global Initiative’s final Annual Meeting.
We’re purposefully starting with a pilot program in a specific geographic location so that we can measure impact accurately, and learn what needs to be adjusted before we scale. We recognize that the challenges facing recycling collectors in Molea are challenges being faced by communities all around the world and believe the best practices we learn here will be applicable in supply chains globally.
We hope that we can open dialogue around child labor in recycling. There is so much potential for low-income countries through participation in the circular economy. As we expand circular thinking it is our responsibility to ensure vulnerable populations are not left behind. By bringing dignity and safety to recycling at every level, businesses can have tremendous social and environmental impact through production.
We can’t ignore the challenging or tough aspects of working in low-income countries. These kids are incredible. They want to be mechanics, and engineers, and psychologists when they grow up. They work hard everyday to help their families. Now we have the opportunity to help them. We can bring access to opportunities that will change the trajectory of their lives while making responsible products needed all over the world. The future is bright.