There seems to be a large mismatch in what Information Technologies today can do, and what IT does for the consumer regarding the origins and impacts of their purchases. We can access information about anything on Wikipedia for free, we can target sub-groups of sub-groups using Facebook or Google ads in a way that marketers 20 years ago could never imagine. But try to find out where your shirt came from and you will find out what country the final factory was in; almost certainly not when it was produced, how it got to you, the source of the materials, the producer or the picker of the cotton. Was the cotton picked by slaves? Possibly.
When you consider all the information that is missing from the average piece of consumer goods, especially for relatively ‘simple’ goods like clothing or food, it is astounding when comparing to what we have available to us in different areas of our lives. Questions like:
- Where is the factory?
- Did the factory use renewable sources of power?
- What was the CO2 impact of the factory that can be attributed to my product?
- Was the building LEED certified?
- What about the materials / inputs used? Their CO2 impact?
- Were they sourced ethically?
- Where did they come from? Are they local?
- Did this product help destroy the rainforest? Or did it come from a forest that was sustainably logged?
- What about the packaging? Is it biodegradable? Will it likely be recycled?
When you consider how markets are supposed to be the most ‘efficient allocator of resources’ in economic-speak, then a lack of information on this magnitude is a huge market failure. I argue that all of us routinely buy products, and thereby support companies, which we would in no way support if we had full information about their impact.
The key to giving the consumer access to this information is through the traceability of products within and between firms. It is the traceability of products that is the key for creating a sustainable, just, and low carbon world.
If we had traceability then consumers will choose to purchase a fairly produced product, all other variables being equal. Having detailed information available will create a virtuous cycle, more info, more claims of good can be proven, more business try to do good.
There is the question of proving the claims that are supplied by companies, and this is a valid question. Blockchain technologies can prove the transactions between parties so that the transfers between parties are proven. But I think that simply providing the information is a necessary first step, before building a system that verifies these transactions. Additionally, blockchain technologies are associated with a cost for writing transactions to the blockchain, and for some goods this proof will simply not be necessary. For example, if you buy eggs from a retailer that deals with local farmers only, do you really need a blockchain transaction to ‘prove’ that the local farmer and retailer transferred ownership of the eggs at a particular time? What is the risk to you if the retailer mixed the eggs up with a different local farmer? Of course for other goods that are counterfeited regularly, a blockchain proof would be desirable.
Some may ask about information overload. Who will have time to consume all this information? But by simply providing this information, then something can be done with it. If it is provided for a product, it can be read perhaps by an AI program that will rank how ‘good’ the product is, compared to competing products. Let the market decide how ‘good’ each product is, based on facts. All the questions that are posed above have objective answers. And these answers will go a long way in combating greenwashing of products. After all, if the products are produced fairly, then provide proof of this to the consumer at the time of purchase.
Another point of contention will surely be about the confidentiality of suppliers. This issue can be mitigated due to how Entity Systems works. Because the information about products is passed on to the next player in the supply chain, all control over this information is also passed along as well. So if a retail firm wants to only reveal the CO2 emissions that their supplier emitted during production of the item in question, and not the name and location, that is entirely within their control, no third party is involved.
I want to live in a world where products that do not have their origin provided, do not have their carbon emissions provided are simply assumed to be produced unsustainably, in poor conditions, perhaps by slave labour. Products that don’t disclose their origins should be assumed to be shady product, because if they are not, then why don’t they disclose information about the origin of the product?