• 11.02.11

Find The Child Slaves Hiding In The Grocery Store

Free2Work’s app lets you scan barcodes and see who actually made your chocolate, say, or your child’s toys. Once you find out they were slaves, do you still want to buy it after that?

Some estimates put the number of people working as slaves in the global economy as high as 30 million. We know many of them make the products that land in our supermarkets and shopping malls. Awareness campaigns and web tools like the Slavery Footprint calculator can even use sophisticated algorithms to make a best guess estimate of just how many slaves are working for you and your lifestyle.


But to take action at the cash register, and for your purchasing power to send an anti-slavery message day in and day out, you need more precise information. Since there’s never going to be a label on packaging that says, “made by kidnapped children,” the anti-slavery nonprofit Not For Sale is doing their best to come up with a substitute: a barcode scanning app that ranks products on labor practices.

Free2Work 2.0 (available on iPhone and Android) joins a growing number of transparency shopping aides–like the GoodGuide, which ranks companies and products on sustainability metrics. This one lets consumers see a letter grade for the product or brand they’re about to buy and a breakdown of grades on sub-categories like transparency, monitoring, and worker rights.

There are about 10,000 products from approximately 400 brands in the Free2Work database, which really isn’t that many in the grand scheme of even just a single supermarket’s options, but it’s a solid start. Most of the items in your kitchen, for example, won’t come up–cleaning products, smaller brands’ food products, American-made orange juice–but that makes sense, because Not For Sale is targeting the most troublesome industries first for rankings: jewelry, shoes, electronics, sports equipment, apparel, flowers and plants, toys, and certain foods.

Chocolate gets its own category for instance, and a scroll through the 100 or so ranked options makes the industry look like a bunch of summer-school rejects with mostly Ds. Scanning a box of Nestle’s chocolate Sno Caps candy pulls up a ranking for another Nestle product, Abuelitas (as a “product of Abuelitas”) and ranked it a D. Equal Exchange’s Fair Trade certified chocolate got an A-, dragged down by a B in worker rights.

“Every product has a story. And I know that I am not the only person who does not want to wear people’s tragedy. I do not want to consume their suffering with my morning cup of coffee,” said Dave Batstone, founder and president of Not For Sale. Earlier this month the nonprofit released Free2Work 2.0 to add in the scanning feature and social tools to help shame campaigns go viral and get the attention of companies. They call it app-tivism.

Batstone is hoping these tools will set off interaction around the worst products and drive business to the best. With a few taps you can tweet or post about your new discoveries of old favorite products: Tell your beau that 1800Flowers gets a D-, so you don’t want roses from them anymore, but he could switch to the 1800Flowers Fair Trade line, which gets a B+ and promises to trace all suppliers “down to the raw materials level” and monitor annually for labor violations. Sparking that kind of consumer behavior is the point of the app, which is why sharing is a prominent feature in the 2.0 version, also why the app is funded in part by the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.


On a more mass scale, when you go to tweet that you just switched jean brands through the app, Free2Work auto-generates hashtags to make sure the companies you are talking about see your declaration of conscious consumption and, if possible, the app posts it to the company’s Facebook page too.

For this to work, of course, there needs to be positive ratings as well as shameful ones. If you want to find a socially responsible line of toys, good luck. The only brand that ranks above D is Lego, with a B. But as the app expands–more than 25,000 people have already downloaded it and can suggest new products to rank–it adds more pressure on companies to let Not For Sale grade them. This kind of in-aisle tool will start to drive more buy-cotts that companies won’t be able to ignore, eventually.