Friday, August 16, 2019
Last week, I led a “legal hack” for some of the first year students during orientation. Each participating professor spoke for ten minutes on a topic of our choice and then answered questions for ten minutes. I picked business and human rights, my passion. I titled my brief lecture, “Are you using a product made by slaves, and if you are, can you do anything about it”?
In my ten minutes, I introduced the problem of global slavery; touched on the false and deceptive trade practices litigation levied against companies; described the role of shareholder activists and socially responsible investors in pressuring companies to clean up supply chains; raised doubts about the effectiveness of some of the disclosure regimes in the US, EU, and Australia; questioned the efficacy of conscious consumerism; and mentioned blockchain as a potential tool for provenance of goods. Yes. In ten minutes.
During the actual hack later in the afternoon, I had a bit more time to flesh out the problem. I developed a case study around the Rana Plaza disaster in which a building collapse in Bangladesh killed over 1,000 garment workers six years ago. Students brainstormed solutions to the problems I posed with the help of upperclassmen as student facilitators and community stakeholders with subject matter expertise. At the end of the two-hour brainstorming session, the students presented their solutions to me.
We delved deeper into my subject matter as I asked my student hackers to play one of four roles: a US CEO of a company with a well-publicized CSR policy deciding whether to stay in Bangladesh or source from a country with a better human rights record; a US Presidential candidate commenting on both a potential binding treaty on business and human rights and a proposed federal mandatory due diligence regime in supply chains; a trade union representative in Bangladesh prioritizing recommendations and demands to EU and US companies; and a social media influencer with over 100 million followers who intended to use his platform to help an NGO raise awareness.
This exercise was identical to an exercise I did in March in Pakistan with 100 business leaders, students, lawyers, government officials, and members of civil society as part of an ABA Rule of Law Initiative. The only difference was that I asked Pakistanis to represent the Bangladesh government and I asked the US students to represent a political candidate.
In both Pakistan and Miami, the participants had to view the labor issues in the supply chain from a multistakeholder perspective. Interestingly, in both Pakistan and Miami, the participants playing the social media influencer rejected the idea of a boycott. Even though multiple groups played this role in both places, each group believed that seeking a boycott of companies that used unsafe Bangladeshi factories would cause more harm than good.
Of note, the Miami Law students did their hack during the call for a boycott of Soul Cycle due to Steve Ross’ decision to hold a fundraiser for President Trump. In my unscientific poll, three out of three students who patronized Soul Cycle refused to boycott. When it came to the fictionalized case study, all groups raised concerns that a boycott could hurt garment workers in Bangladesh and retail workers in the US and EU. Some considered a “buycott” to support brands with stronger human rights records.
I’ve written before about my skepticism about long term boycotts, especially those led by millennials. Some of these same students echoed my concerns about their own lack of sustained commitment on proposed boycotts in the past. The “winning” hack- #DoBetterBangladesh was a multipronged strategy to educate consumers, adopt best practices of successful campaigns such as the Imokalee
farm workers, and form acoalition with other influencers to encourage consumer donations to reputable NGOs in Bangladesh. After seeing what these student groups could do in just two hours, I can’t wait to see what they can accomplish after three years of law school.