Tuesday Project Spotlight: Levi Strauss & Co. Uses Blockchain for its Worker Well-Being INIT
In the era of the Great Resignation, employers are realizing more than ever that financial health is tied directly to their employees’ mental and physical health. But some companies, like Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.), recognized this connection years ago.
LS&Co. is, of course, more famous for its jeans than its worker well-being programs. Yet the company’s innovative approach to sustainability goes beyond clothing. In 2019, the company joined with the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) at New America, the Sustainability and Health Initiative for Netpositive Enterprise (SHINE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and ConsenSys to create an open-source, blockchain-powered assessment tool that can track worker well-being in its suppliers’ factories. The Levi Strauss Foundation and the U.S. State Department also contributed to this project.
This image courtesy of LS&Co. Post featured image (top) courtesy of CARE Cambodia.
Garment workers are among the world’s most vulnerable employees, particularly in developing countries, where the bulk of apparel manufacturing happens (1). The majority are women (2). In 2019, LS&Co. and one of its Mexican suppliers gave the SHINE team permission to conduct in-person interviews with garment factory workers focused on well-being in the workplace and at home. The company also interviewed factory workers remotely in Poland in 2020 (3). These types of worker surveys are particularly important given the vulnerability of factory workers, but they can be challenging to administer. Indeed, efforts to protect worker privacy and “[f]ragmented information about the apparel value chain” prevent “researchers from building effective interventions to improve factory production and worker quality of life (4).” Workers may feel afraid for their jobs if their survey responses can be tied to their identities. Moreover, there is always the risk of tampering with worker surveys before the results can reach upper levels of management.
“[Blockchain] technology [allows worker] voices to be heard directly, not through the lens of a compliance auditor.” Eileen McNeely, Executive Director of Harvard SHINE
Blockchain technology can solve these privacy and trust issues. The model developed by the Harvard SHINE and New America team, called “Survey Assure,” offers a near-real time tool that can aggregate survey responses, make those responses immutable on the Ethereum blockchain, and “allow the system administrators to create a ‘presentation layer’ in order to visualize responses and analyze the data without altering it (5).” In this way, Levi Strauss & Co. was able to present workers with their responses within two days of administering the survey (rather than the weeks it could normally take), and assure workers that their responses were immutable and had not been altered. Based on this verifiable feedback from apparel workers, the company and its suppliers can make targeted changes to improve worker well-being. Eileen McNeely, Executive Director of Harvard SHINE, explains that this innovation is critical because it enabled the workers to fully participate in weighing in on the conditions of their own work and their own lives. “This technology allowed their voices to be heard directly, not through the lens of a compliance auditor.” McNeely notes that the industry standard approach is to aim to avoid human rights violations in factories. “We went beyond this. Our intent was to improve overall conditions and raise complete well-being among workers and their families.”
This image courtesy of DIGI at New America.
This project ended in late 2021, and the report detailing the results of the Survey Assure project are available here. This blockchain-based tool has widespread ramifications, since it can be applied to any survey environment. Although there are challenges to implementing at scale, including resource limitations and pandemic-related closures of factories for companies around the world, the Levi Strauss & Co. experiment showed that blockchain can be used to effectively survey factory workers and make viable improvements in their well-being.
How could lawyers assist with an innovative project like this? The research team offered suggestions for civic tech development that would enable these types of projects to be scaled up. These include more investment in broadband access, the development of safe and effective identity solutions, and nurturing inclusive talent pools (6). Lawyers can advocate for these policy changes in their jurisdictions. We can also use our purchasing power to support companies willing to use innovation to improve the lives of their workers (7).
“[T]he aspiration of the Worker Well-being initiative is to improve the health, satisfaction and engagement of people making our products and to share the journey so that others can learn from our experiences. Kim Almeida, Director of Worker Well-being at the Levi Strauss Foundation
In addition, the Survey Assure project was funded in part by the U.S. State Department. Government attorneys, listen up: Is there a way for your office to partner with private enterprises and use blockchain technology to improve the lives of the residents you serve?
Kim Almeida, Director of Worker Well-being at the Levi Strauss Foundation, explains that “the aspiration of the Worker Well-being initiative is to improve the health, satisfaction and engagement of people making our products and to share the journey so that others can learn from our experiences. This partnership with Harvard SHINE and New America yielded an important tool that gets us one step closer to connecting the dots between workers’ experiences in factories and the larger apparel sector ecosystem.”
The LS&Co. team demonstrated that innovation and performance can go hand-in-hand. The company hopes to continue and expand this blockchain-enabled research in the near future. We’ll keep you posted here at the BL4SG Center!