Power to the People


In a time of increased scrutiny of factory conditions in developing countries, for-profit startup LaborVoices Inc. aims to make supply chains transparent for corporate brands while providing “a voice for global workers” by gathering real-time data from thousands of laborers across the world.

The Sunnyvale, Calif., company has set up a system to regularly survey workers on safety, wages and work hours, allowing them to use their mobile phones to anonymously report unsafe conditions or other violations in factories operated by third-party suppliers. LaborVoices’ “smartline” also provides workers with information about their rights and other matters.

“We’re essentially crowdsourcing factory-condition information from workers in factories around the world,” LaborVoices founder and CEO Kohl Gill said. Walmart, as part of a broader effort to improve factory safety, announced in May that it was partnering with LaborVoice in a “grassroots level outreach” to workers at the 279 factories in the big-box retailer’s supply chain in Bangladesh.

LaborVoices’ smartline is one example of the ways in which crowdsourcing – gathering ideas, data, funding or services from large numbers of people – is working its way into supply chain operations.

Less than a decade after James Surowiecki wrote The Wisdom of Crowds, startup companies and global corporations alike have embraced the fundamental premise of the 2004 book, that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” The concept has taken hold in various forms and areas of commerce.

The next big idea

While entrepreneurs, inventors, artists and filmmakers turn to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to find capital for their ventures, major brands including Clorox and Unilever have turned to the public, via the Internet, in search of innovative products or technology – “because the next big idea can come from anyone, anywhere,” the CloroxConnects website says.

In supply chains, crowdsourcing in one form or another has touched operations from sourcing to store shelves, affecting planning, packaging, labor and materials as companies seek to save money, reduce their carbon footprints, monitor demand and fill skill gaps, in addition to monitoring factory conditions.

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– By Dinah Wisenberg Brin