The Missing Link: Blockchain

“Without understanding the impacts of goods and services, we buy into systems that deplete natural resources, worsen environmental and social problems and endanger humans and ecosystems. Supply chains are conventionally held secret, limiting the stakeholders who can prevent environmental, social and health and safety problems.”


Is Consumer Power doing more harm than good? We make 46 million retail transactions every week – making us more active as consumers, as retail researcher Jonathan Shifferes observes, than as workers or as voters. In the age of transparency and market choice, we’re told we have more power than ever before to use these transactions to demanding sustainable, ethical and legal business practices.

Yet for real change to occur through consumer power alone, better supply chain practices need to deliver better margins, and uncomfortable gaps persist – between what we say and what we do; between what we know and what we don’t; and, in this age of globally unwieldy supply, what we know that we know, and what we know that we don’t. As an unexamined concept, Consumer Power risks forgetting the most basic premise of all: knowledge is power – and we can’t use ours until we have all the facts, all the time, especially at the moment of purchase.


The rub, of course, is this: as our capacity to learn more about the world has grown, the more disconnected we have become from our methods of consumption; the more prone we are to failures of the imagination when it comes to questioning where these products come from and who supplies them. And as behavioural science deepens our understanding about the often irrational realities of human behaviour – particularly our tendency toward short-termism and inertia – the more we know that the choices we make often fail to reflect our values, compassion and reasoning.


Worse: there is a danger that these failures of ‘consumer power’ are increasingly used by companies to justify low price points and opaque supply chains on the basis that there is no real appetite for ethical products.


Consumer Power needs recharging. So what can be done?


Steve Trent, Co-Founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, is optimistic about the desire of consumers to make ethical choices – but believes retailers aren’t doing enough to support them. ‘The way that supermarkets and retailers position products in-store, the way they use advertising and branding shapes – these things shape the debate. These things create a self-fulfilling prophecy of success or failure.’


Individual brands have made headway – when John West started adding traceable bar codes to its tuna cans – but they remain outliers in an opaque web. Appetite for traceability is there – indeed, John West’s codes added £17m to its sales – but certification is costly, the process of authentication challenging, especially in corrupt regions, slowing the revolution. Little has been available, until now, to complete the chain of knowledge: ensuring the journey that takes a product from source to plate is fully transparent and fully authenticated for every stakeholder along the way.


Now, blockchain technology is changing everything.


Provenance CEO Jessi Baker shared Steve’s belief in the power of consumer choice, and a keen frustration that the complex journey of supply remains ‘an unseen dimension of our possessions’. As a result, ‘Brand perception, price, and previous experience of a product continue to dominate our reasons to buy, relegating our societal and environmental concerns to conversations on social media’.


Now, using blockchain technology, Jessi and her team have made the supply chain visible: providing products with a ‘digital passport’ that can’t be faked, can’t be hacked, and can’t be hidden. Consumers can access every step of its journey, enriched with content from suppliers along the way, by simply using its unique identity code.


Though still early days, the implications of Provenance and blockchain in tackling slavery, abuse and unethical practices in global supply chains are profound. Significantly, the team recently completed a successful 6-month pilot in which Indonesian Tuna was tracked from catch to consumer using the Provenance platform. The pilot was a success, proving that Provenance can be used for ‘tracking items and claims securely, end-to-end, in a highly robust, yet accessible format without the need for a centralised data management system’. Though still far off from being a daily reality on every shelf, Provenance puts the power firmly back in our hands, and helping us to ‘live’ – better – ‘in the world we buy into’.


Click here to listen to Don Tapscott explain how blockchain is changing money and business at TED.