Consumer trust is a prerequisite for successful business. We talk to the founder of transparency company Provenance about the technology that could drive change faster than ever
There is a growing movement towards more responsible, ethical shopping. Where customers can see exactly where their products are sourced and who by, not just from the point of origin but through the whole supply chain. This is not just about knowing whether a coffee is fair trade, or if a tin of tuna is dolphin-friendly. This is something more.
A 2015 study showed that as many as 72 percent of UK millennials are willing to pay more money for products from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. Yet for consumers to be able to shop with confidence, finding the right information is still not that easy.
So, when Jessi Baker, founder and Chief Executive of transparency company Provenance started up in 2014 she did so in part out of frustration. “I like to buy from businesses that I know more about and how they make their products,” says Baker. “I just found it incredibly difficult to find firms that matched my values.”
Provenance looks to remedy that. It works with brands and retailers to make products traceable. It’s currently working with the Co-op, for example, using digital passporting of fresh crops to track their whole journey to the shop floor. This enables the supermarket to ensure that its ethically sourced products live up to its claims.
The cultural shift
Baker set Provenance up as a side project while doing a PhD in computer science looking into new technologies to enable transparency in supply chains. With a background in manufacturing engineering, she has also worked in branding and marketing for digital products. “Provenance is an amalgamation of all the different jobs I’ve done in the past. From working in supply chains to building experience for brands to looking at the future of tech.”
The transparency movement is relatively new. But it’s one that is growing, and Provenance has positioned itself at the vanguard. “Big businesses are waking up to the fact that there’s a consumer that’s really interested in this stuff,” adds Baker. “We’re seeing lots of new businesses that are being more transparent and building brands that are really challenging some of the larger companies.”
For many companies this type of shift in consumer interest involves a degree of cultural change. “There’s a hang-up from the past that business is all about information asymmetry, and that you need to be secretive about how you’re making money,” she adds.
“There’s also a bit of fear that if they start to be transparent they will get more questions. And if they don’t fully understand or know everything about their supply chains that they might get rumbled. There isn’t a huge amount of evidence that that’s the case.”
The reality is that a lot of big businesses don’t know everything about their supply chain, so a shift in this direction is naturally a little daunting. For small and medium sized businesses, however, there is very little stopping them from taking more responsibility for their supply chain – which Baker is adamant more should do.
But she adds that transparency doesn’t necessarily start and end with supply chains. Trust in business is something that can be built by peeling back the curtain of a company.
“Even just opening up information on who the faces behind the organisation are. Like who’s working in the office, who’s the CEO. Lots of people don’t even know who runs the company that they buy products from every day.”
A major aim of Provenance is to add credibility to claims of good ethics. And its method is to celebrate the good that companies do, including supporting plastic-free and circular economy claims, as opposed to highlighting the bad.
At its core Provenance is very much a tech company. It is exploring how new technology can enable businesses to be more transparent. And a big part of that journey is Blockchain, which many people believe is the next evolutionary step of the internet.
“In the first phase, Web 1.0 was very transactional,” explains Baker. “I could send you a message. Great. Web 2.0 brought us social media and also reputation systems like Airbnb and Trustpilot, and the ability to have payments through third parties.”
Now Blockchain removes the need for a middle-man to send money by providing a database that keeps its data unique and stores it in one secure place accessible by all. “It allows you to create this new shared data system. Meaning you can create trust across a network because you’re all looking at the same trusted source of data, rather than the internet today where we’re looking at different sources. That’s how something like Bitcoin has managed multi-billion pounds worth of transactions without a bank, because it is using this one shared data system. Everyone knows you can’t copy and paste Bitcoin.”
Provenance packages this data so that companies it works with can plug it into their existing consumer experience. But the long-term vision is to provide a portal for users to discover products and learn everything about that product’s journey with trusted data.
Blockchain is a big step towards achieving this, and Baker believes it will bring wholesale changes to most people’s shopping experiences in the long-term. But she adds that it’s likely to be a further five or 10 years before the technology is “powering the internet”.
Change it seems is coming. But for now, newer brands are successfully using digital trust tools such as social media and Trustpilot, and turning to more transparent business practices, to enable them to build brands faster than the previous decade.
“Larger companies really need to listen up to what’s going on. They should take note from some of the smaller brands that are building their businesses very fast with younger generations as their core customers.”
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