Program on Global Justice: Just supply chains, liberation technology, and human rights

One of Stanford's many remarkable attractions is the Rodin sculpture garden. And perhaps the most extraordinary Rodin sculpture is his Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante’s “Inferno.” In his Divine Comedy, Dante tells us that the inscription over the Gates of Hell is “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

For hundreds of millions of people, that sad admonition belongs over their workplace. Abandon all hope … and not only your hope. Abandon your health and your right to associate; and don’t expect to be paid much.

That problem — the terrible unfairness of so many people having to sacrifice so much simply to make a living — provides the focus for the Just Supply Chains project of the Program on Global Justice (PGJ). Because of resistance to such working conditions, and pressure from movements against sweatshops, many companies have adopted codes of conduct for themselves and their suppliers over the past decade. But studies of these “private voluntary codes” have generated considerable skepticism about their effectiveness in improving compensation, working conditions, and rights of association. The aim of the project is to explore how codes and monitoring for compliance might be improved and also to consider some alternatives to private voluntary codes for regulating global labor markets.

PGJ has held two meetings, with participation from academics (from Stanford and elsewhere), NGOs (Fair Labor Association, Ethical Trading Initiative, Workers Rights Consortium), companies (Ford, Nike, Gap, Coca-Cola, Apple, HP, and Costco), and unions (including the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation). Through wide-ranging discussions, participants identified a set of research topics: whether consumers are willing to pay more for goods produced under decent conditions, whether there is a “business case” for improved labor standards, what the effects on labor standards will be of current reorganizations of supply chains in response to growing transportation costs, and how national labor-inspection systems might work better under conditions of globalized production. The next step is to establish working groups, combining academics and practitioners, to refine these topics and start to answer open questions about how to promote more decent working conditions in global supply chains.

In addition to the Just Supply Chains project, PGJ has been working to launch some other interdisciplinary, policy-oriented research initiatives. Along with colleagues in the School of Earth Sciences, the Interdisciplinary Program on Environment and Resources, FSI’s Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE), the Ethics Center, and the Woods Institute, PGJ is a partner in an NSF proposal aimed at establishing a training program for graduate students in social sciences and climate science on the differential vulnerability of human-environment systems to climate change, the ethical implications of such differential vulnerability, and the role of institutions in shaping the adaptive capacity of communities.

PGJ is also working on a project on Liberation Technology, bringing together social scientists with researchers in applied technology interested in economically, socially, and politically constructive uses of new information technologies (to enable producers to learn more about markets, citizens to monitor elections and hold officials accountable, and public service providers to identify where those services are most needed). Finally, the Program on Global Justice is launching a Human Rights project, with support from the Presidential Fund for Innovation in International Studies, for historical and comparative research on the roles of political mobilization and legal protections in securing human rights.