A few years ago, Michelle Pratt and Nikki Prendergast were sourcing toys for their New Shoots early childhood centres. And they realised they had no way of knowing where the products came from – or if children made them.
“It dawned on us and we went, ‘How do we know?’ All the children in New Zealand that play with and touch toys – how do we know where [those toys] came from?” Pratt says.
Michelle Pratt and Nikki Prendergast
They initially set out to get their products accredited, but couldn’t find an accreditation system that was consumer fronting. So they founded the two-part foundation and accreditation system Child Labor Free and, after two years of hard slog, they officially launched it last week.
Pratt says it’s bizarre a scheme like this didn’t exist before, considering there’s already consumer fronting animal-based certifications.
“We have not tested on animals and we have cruelty free,” Pratt says. “We’ve always supported those because we're animal people. We know about animals and we care about them, but there is nothing that tells us that we care about children. That’s really wrong.”
The business partners decided that if they couldn’t find a consumer fronting audit system for child labour, they’d create one themselves.
“We’ve never done anything by half,” Prendergast says. “It’s boots in, all in. We went to the lawyer and said, ‘How do we do this?’”
The foundation is not for profit, while the accreditation system is a social enterprise and limited liability company.
Brands can sign up online to have their supply chains audited and, if successful, can market their products with the trademarked CLF mark.
CLF also has a consultancy service to help businesses through the process of becoming child labour free.
Prendergast says CLF is not about going after businesses and naming and shaming them.
Instead, it’s a way for brands to adapt to the age of transparency, she says.
“There’s enough of the naming and shaming stuff going on and that probably has its place, but we think we can make substantial change by engaging businesses early and bringing them on the journey with us. It’s a positive experience for them.”
Pratt agrees and says she personally is a massive consumer.
“It’s about giving people an informed choice,” Pratt says. “We’re not anti-consumers, were actually pro-consumers. It’s conscious consumerism.”
The pair began the journey in 2013 and went through an extensive process sorting out the legal side of things, creating the CLF trademark, the ecommerce portal and mobile application.
One initial problem they had to tackle was defining the line between children doing harmless work versus labour (UNICEF estimates that around 150 million children worldwide are engaged in child labour).
“Work is great and important if it doesn’t negatively impact on a child’s health, social life, school and wellbeing,” Prendergast says.
She gives the example of paper runs or helping out on the farm before school.
However, labour negatively impacts on all of those aspects, so that is how they defined it.
The official CLF definition is: “Work undertaken by a child, which the child is legally prohibited from undertaking; or is likely to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development; or interferes with a child’s education.”
“It needed to be legally defendable, especially from a businesses perspective,” Pratt says. “We’ve got to be able to defend the definition and consumers have to understand it.”
The CLF accreditation system works by businesses going to its website, creating a login that verifies whether they are a real business, and then uploading data.
The data includes the sites of factories, their size, and how many people are working there versus how many items are made.
There’s also a risk profile and if a company fits it, a physical site inspection will be carried out and then following that, repeat visits.
Prendergast says the website has been built to international data safety standards to protect companies’ commercially sensitive data.
Businesses will pay a licensing fee to use the trademarked CLF mark on their products.
The licensing fee goes towards the CLF not-for-profit foundation, which uses the money for projects that support communities that have removed child labour.
“We never wanted unintended consequences,” Pratt says. “The reality is they’re in labour because their families are in horrendous poverty situations.”
The mark is owned and trademarked by the foundation, so Pratt says it will continue to generate income to help those communities forever.
As for consumers, they can search for CLF accredited products on the website on the mobile application by country, product or category.
Pratt and Prendergast say consumer awareness around supply chains has increased since the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh during 2013.
“I think people have known about it for a little while, but they weren’t ready to know about it,” Prendergast says. “Then that building collapsed and people really had to care. It’s easier not to know about it [but] you couldn’t not know.”
“There’s been quite a significant shift [in consumers caring], it’s almost the new clean and green,” Pratt says.
Dr Amabel Hunting, a professor at Auckland University and an expert in consumer behaviour and ethical consumption, says ethical consumers are no longer a niche group.
"Recent research has found an increasing number of consumers across the market are concerned about these issues," Hunting says. "This is especially true among the younger generation; they care about how workers are treated and will reward brands that share information on their supply chain."
Sales in fair trade goods grew 28 percent in 2014, while a 2014 Colmar Brunton survey found 90 percent of Kiwis want to buy ethically and socially responsible products.
Pratt says the CLF accreditation provides a way for brands to show consumers they care and are eliminating bad practices from their supply chain.
“There’s companies that are going through stringent supply chains, but you wouldn’t know as a consumer as they don’t have a way to tell people,” she says. “If you spent hours and days on the internet, you might know. But there’s nothing that tells you with certainty.”
The CLF accreditation is unique because it’s consumer fronting, so the mark can be shown to consumers on companies’ product tags, websites and in store.
Pratt says for retailers, it means that it’s an incentive for people to choose their CLF-accredited products over another.
“It’s a huge point of difference,” she says.
CLF has recently partnered with New Zealand Fashion Week to host a consumer launch later in the year.
It has some of the biggest New Zealand fashion designers on board to pilot the accreditation system, including Kate Sylvester, Nom*D, Ruby and Stolen Girlfriends Club.
“Nikki and Michelle’s entrepreneurial vision, tenacity and innovative approach to this hugely complex issue is something we greatly admire," says Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand chief executive Nicky Bell. "As Nikki has said, ‘Once you learn about the extent of this issue, you can’t unlearn it’. We are passionate about helping them drive this kind of change in the world. The work we do with them is a great example of the kind of truly collaborative partnerships this agency thrives on."
The agency will continue working closely with CLF in the lead up to consumer facing activity, happening around the partnership with New Zealand Fashion Week, in August.
Prendergast says beyond the fashion sector, CLF is in conversation with local and global brands across many industries, including furnitures, toys, textiles and skincare.
For the future, the ladies want to see their mark become an expectation for consumers to find on products, just like free range and cruelty free products.
“That would be our measure of success. You’d see it on every piece of clothing,” Prendergast says.
Pratt says the long-term goal is to be able to support projects internationally and tell stories with the brands that have made a difference in the world using CLF.
- This story originally appeared in the June/July edition of NZ Retail and on The Register.