Open supply chains are a recurring theme here on the P2P Foundation blog, whether it’s a ‘FairMouse‘, the (very popular) Fairphone, or Sourcemap, (website here) there have been various efforts to make supply chains transparent, whether from the vendors themselves or from third parties.
I am working with the (P2PF-endorsed) FairCoop project on a new ethical market called, you guessed it, FairMarket (still in early alpha phase) and one of the challenges we are facing is: if we are going to call it ‘Fair’ market, how are potential users of the site (and its admins) to have confidence that a given product on the site is indeed truly a fairtrade product and consistent with the ethics the project itself espouses? Every link in the supply chain must be free from exploitation of workers, not be using unsustainably sourced or conflict materials, and so on.
This is fairly simple in the case of someone living on their own land and, say, carving wooden knife handles from their own fallen trees and selling them. But of course when scaled up to much more complex products such as electronic gadgets or clothing, tracking where each element originated from is a major headache.
There are attempts to provide consumers and other links in the supply chain with assurances that the materials are ethically sourced. PosiPair (as in ‘Positive Pairing’) is an innovative idea whereby businesses can pair with other members of their supply chain, each having a profile page where the certification of each link in the supply chain can be displayed. Of course this requires every company involved in the manufacture of a certain product, including all the suppliers to sign up with the service, create their own page, display their certificates etc. Because if one link in the chain is missing, that could be where the exploitative Chinese plastic widgets come in. However PosiPair appears to have been successful in attracting a range of businesses to the site. FairCoop has been in touch with Sarah Manski, the founder of PosiPair, to see if our two projects can join forces and I look forward to seeing where we can go with it.
Another similar idea along the lines of pairing artisans with designers for the ethical or Fairtrade market is The Global Citizen Exchange:
Over the last decade, a small company called Apolis has traveled the world, finding artisans and partnering with them to design new, socially-responsible products. A cooperative in Nepal, run by women, helped them make wool sweaters. Ugandan farmers grew cotton for messenger bags. Artisans in Tel Aviv and Hebron worked together—across the West Bank border, via Skype—to make leather accessories.
Each product was sold through standard channels, in stores. Now Apolis is testing out a different model, called Global Citizen Exchange. Via crowdfunding, it’s hoping to give artisans in developing countries a new platform for their work, letting the crowd decide which products will get made. By selling direct from each factory, they’ll also bring down costs.
One trending innovation which could supercharge this supply chain tracking is of course, the distributed technology behind Bitcoin, the blockchain. If you are slightly in the dark about any aspects of what is a blockchain or how they work, I recommend this article from the always concise Vinay Gupta on the subject.
Gupta is also involved in the Ethereum project which allows apps to be built on top of its blockchain infrastructure, one of which is called Provenance:
Provenance founder Jessi Baker, […] told attendees of WIRED Retail that brands can build trust through transparency using the bitcoin technology.
And that’s something we could do right now. “When everything from shoes to crisps are claiming to be handcrafted […] you might say we’re experiencing a slight crisis in brand trust,” she said. “We need mechanisms to help broker this digital trust.”
The Provenance site claims that:
“Provenance powers supply chain transparency and secure traceability for materials, ingredients and products. Our tools give brands, suppliers, and producers across different industries access to the latest technology to prove the value and authenticity of their products.”
I feel sure that more transparent supply chains are coming; the prevalence of people sharing the reality of how the products we use are manufactured on social media, such as the terrible conditions in the Chinese factories of Apple suppliers is making a reality of what Douglas Rushkoff predicted in ‘Get Back in the Box’ – there is really no long-term way in today’s connected and increasingly transparent world to hide exploitation and corrupt practices in manufacturing; whatever the skills of your PR department, the truth will eventually come out, so it is in your interest to clean up your act and then make that the focus of your marketing.
Also supply chain transparency can help businesses be sure they are compliant with law by not unknowingly sourcing materials from conflict zones or those with trade embargoes against them. It could also be combined with something like the ‘Economy For the Common Good’ initiative as a new way of measuring the positive impact any given business has and allowing us as consumers to be sure that we are not unwittingly causing harm when we choose to buy a product.
The blockchain, to paraphrase Vinay Gupta, being the first distributed networked database which ‘just works’, does seem an ideal infrastructure on which to build this kind of complex supply chain tracking, increasing informed decision-making and transparency all the way down the line, which can only be a good thing.