Meet the Board: Piper Hendricks
There are many benefits to membership at the Washington Foreign Law Society, including the opportunity to attend events alongside our distinguished Board of Governors. Over the next few months, WFLS will be interviewing some of our Board Members to showcase the unique and diversified talent behind the Society. Our first featured Board Member is Piper Hendricks, Founder and Executive Director of p.h. balanced films.
Tell us how you started p.h. balanced films. Were there any particular experiences from your work a human rights lawyer that inspired you?
Completely unbeknownst to me, the seeds of p.h. balanced films were planted many years ago during my judicial clerkship in the Southern District of Florida. After several years at Fried Frank, LLP, I attended a screening of King Corn at a small theater on South Beach and witnessed a quiet audience transform into an animated community with a shared understanding and common goal during the post-screening discussion.
But it wasn’t until many years later that those filmmaking seeds took root as I was talking with a Catholic nun in Israel about bananas. I told her how, in 2007, Chiquita settled with the Justice Department the charges of aiding the commission of major human rights abuses. (You can read the Department of Justice Press Release announcing the settlement here: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2007/March/07_nsd_161.html and a full report by the Business Roundtable’s Institute for Corporate Ethics of the events leading up to this settlement here: http://www.corporate-ethics.org/pdf/case_studies/BRI-1008_Chiquita_and_Department_of_Justice.pdf.)
Without skipping a beat, the nun declared that she would “never buy their bananas again.” I saw her earnest desire to never support bad practices through the products that she buys as a powerful force for change.
I suspected – and my research later confirmed – that the vast majority of consumers share this same aspiration to buy only ethically-produced products; people do not want to vicariously commit human rights abuses with their hard-earned dollars. I also suspected that most people were not aware of the corporate accountability cases slowly winding their way through our judicial system (and, based on evolving interpretations of the forum non conveniens doctrine, through foreign judicial systems as well).
Film, on the other hand, is highly accessible; over 105 million Americans watch videos online every day. We all know that seeing things with our own eyes is one of the most powerful ways to understand the world around us. And that is how I came to be a documentary filmmaker.
How did you become involved with WFLS?
I chaired the DC Bar’s Immigration & Human Rights Committee for several years. During my tenure, I met the extraordinary Samuel Witten, who invited me to join the Board of the Washington Foreign Law Society, of which he is now President.
Among the myriad strong legal organizations our legal community enjoys in the Washington, D.C. region, the WFLS stands out to me due to the interdisciplinary membership it attracts and the broad range of legal issues it addresses. WFLS’ ability to cross sectors, disciplines and oceans is critical in this era of incredible globalization; most lawyers in our community see elements of foreign law in their practices – from international trade to immigration; adoption to criminal justice.
As a documentary filmmaker who focuses on these issues, what is the value of an organization like WFLS?
Remaining active in the legal community as I learn about codecs, frame rates, and film editing software is critical. Consumer awareness is one path toward ensuring that companies engage in ethical practices, along with other tools, like strong regulatory structures, comprehensive company policies, and a robust judicial system, when needed, but history suggests that without one, the others may be ineffective. Two easy examples of this are cocoa and conflict minerals.
Could you speak more about that? What do you think of the trend of legislation focusing on corporate supply chain due diligence? Will these laws have the desired outcome of stopping or limiting human rights abuses? What about the push for more transparent labeling?
In 2001, the U.S. Congress proposed a protocol to eliminate child labor from cocoa supply chains in West Africa. In 2012, cocoa companies promised to finally do so by 2020. Several factors contributed to this decision, but many credit consumer awareness and considerable public pressure for the companies’ taking action.
Like cocoa, current attempts to regulate the destabilizing illicit trade and exploitation of four minerals from the African Great Lakes Region also have international implications and require a multi-pronged approach. These minerals, collectively referred to as “conflict minerals” in Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, end up in electronics across the globe, including the United States, while fueling the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As evidenced by the hotly contested litigation over the conflict minerals rule, defended by the SEC and opposed by the Chamber of Commerce, transparency in the supply chains of these minerals will not come easily. But this is a supply chain about which an increasing number of consumers care, including many who have seen Blood in the Mobile, a documentary film by a Danish filmmaker. The European Commission recently opened a public consultation on a possible EU initiative on responsible sourcing of these minerals.
These are just two examples of the intersection of legal matters and everyday consumer products.
Today, your smart phone was likely made in the now infamous Foxconn factories in China; one-third of the shrimp from Thailand are consumed in the U.S.; and rubber products (including the tires on the car you commute in every day) may have come from a tree in Liberia. As consumers learn more about how their purchases connect them to other people around the world, I believe we will see a growing interest in ensuring people throughout supply chains are treated fairly.
What short films are you working on now?
I actually just returned a few weeks ago from Liberia, where we began gathering powerful stories about several industries, including rubber and palm oil. While we’re seeing encouraging improvements in the rubber industry, the impact of palm oil production on communities is quite disturbing. Palm oil is in over half of the packaged products for sale in our supermarkets and the proliferation of plantations is having a devastating impact on people and the planet. Many communities are learning about their rights, but whether those rights are respected is another question.
We are also creating a series of films about the supply chains in the coffee, cotton, electronics, shrimp, and rubber industries, to name a few. Finally, we are developing a second series to feature businesses with ethical practices that customers can feel good about supporting. Our message is balanced – both about abuses in supply chains and about businesses with good practices as well.*