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Stopping slavery with tech: How Samantha Jones and Little Yellow Bird raised $1.2m for a blockchain platform to end modern slavery

It’s safe to say Samantha Jones knows a thing or two about being innovative and working to make the world a better place. After all, she spent much of her childhood growing up overseas (and even finished high school while living in Indonesia), and left a career in the New Zealand military to start Little Yellow Bird, a clothing company developed with the vision of improving social and environmental sustainability throughout the garment supply chain. Along the way, she’s spent loads of time in developing countries meeting with workers, won heaps of awards such as the Young New Zealand Innovator Award at the 2017 Innovation Awards and was a recipient of a prestigious Edmund Hillary Fellowship, and even recently expanded into children’s clothing

But even by her standards, her latest accomplishment is impressive: raising no less than $1.2 million for what might very well be a world-first tech platform using NEM (a peer-to-peer cryptocurrency and blockchain platform) to trace garments from origin to sale.

Called Origins, Jones’ project is the second New Zealand venture to have a project funded via the NEM community fund proposal process. Oh, and she’s also the first woman globally. “Just like I did with Little Yellow Bird, I’m actually trying to solve a problem that I’ve faced first-hand and one that I can see impacts people and businesses across a range of industries,” she says.

She has more to say about Origins. “I think Origins is really important, and will become essential for businesses and brands as legislation around preventing modern-day slavery starts to come into force. Research estimates indicate that there are over 16 million people working in forced labour, a large percentage are associated with the fashion industry, and I think consumers have a moral obligation to ensure the products they purchase aren’t contributing to this. At this point it’s really difficult for consumers to know what they are purchasing, so often they are inadvertently buying into a system that perpetuates a cycle of poverty inherent in garment-producing countries.”

Jones says there were several reasons to use NEM. “The community aspect appealed to us as did NEM being an impact focused solution. NEM is relatively easy to build off and we also knew a few people that had been through the community fund proposal before.”

Check out this podcast with Jones on the garment industry and sustainability:

There’s little doubt that consumer pressure for increased visibility of a garment’s supply chain is part of the reason why Little Yellow Bird has been so successful – but Jones hopes other businesses, particularly apparel companies, become more transparent, too. “As we’ve become a more established business, my focus has definitely shifted to differentiating our brand based on product, and helping other businesses to implement the traceability and ethics that are now ingrained in the Little Yellow Bird ethos.”

Jason Lee, NEM expansion director for Australia and New Zealand, has high hopes for Origins. “The supply chain industry is one of best areas to develop a real-world blockchain use case, and we are excited to support Origins in utilising the NEM blockchain technology which will be a great showcase globally,” he says. “This also aligns with NEM’s aim to support social impact project like these across the region.”

Of course, lack of visibility within the garment sector is a global issue, with consumers increasingly demanding brands provide greater transparency – and also that the workers who produce garments are treated fairly and paid enough to live off of and support their families. Jones believes Origins will be something that can help brands as well as consumers. And, she believes it can help Aotearoa establish itself as a global leader in garment industry transparency. “The ultimate aim for Origins would be for us and New Zealand to be seen as a leader in transparency for the garment industry, and that this system could become the standard or norm for brands globally.”

Jones and her team will be heading to India in August to set up phase one of the implementation plan for Origins. After that, Jones will be travelling to Edinburgh to represent Aotearoa at the Social Enterprise World Forum as a guest speaker, presenting her learnings and impact journey.

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