Imagine a day in the future, where you’ll walk into store and know exactly where and how each product on sale has been manufactured. You’ll understand the impact its manufacturing process has had on the planet before you choose whether or not to buy it.
This is the vision behind Provenance, a startup building a platform to help brands make their supply chains more transparent: a future where radical transparency is commonplace for every brand, retailer and manufacturer. It came from founder, Jessi Baker’s, own frustration with how little we know about where things we buy come from. Her goal is to bring meaningful change to commerce through empowering people with the data and information.
Today, buying less, buying locally and buying quality made products is becoming increasingly attractive. Whether political, ethical or environmental, there is growing concern for understanding what people are vetting for with their money. Successful brands such as Everlane, Patagonia and Reformation are built on this. Even big corporations are taking notice of these shifting demands, with fast fashion companies such as Zara and H&M trialling new sustainable manufacturing initiatives.
But in how far is this “trend” part of a greater movement? And how far off are we from truly knowing how our consumption patterns impact the environment and the wellbeing of people? According to Jessi, a shift toward radical transparency across all business industries, not just retail, is inevitable – but we do still have a long way to go.
“Products and their supply chains are very complicated. You’d be really surprised about how many of the products we buy everyday have tie-ins with things that you’d usually hate to be involved with,” Jessi tells us. “Lots of businesses are still riding on the fact that they don’t know where their products come from, and therefore consumers don’t know either.”
Through the use of advanced blockchain technology, Provenance offers organisations and brands a software tool (much like they might use Shopify or Squarespace) that helps trace the histories of their products. Through enabling each product, or even batch of products, with a digital “passport,” manufacturers and brands are empowered to put proof behind authenticity (is this product what it claims to be?) and origin (where does this product come from?). Retailers can then choose to share this information online through a plug-in or via an in-store display. So far, Provenance has worked predominantly with the food and beverage industry, notably trialling their technology to track fish from the sea to the supermarket shelves in an effort to tackle slavery within the fishing industry.
“It’s one thing for a consumer to choose not to buy from a certain retailer or brand, but we need to recognise that change needs to cascade up the entire supply chain,” says Jessi, who founded the social enterprise in 2003. “The only way of doing that is making that data more transparent and accessible. We want to empower every business to share that data in a format that everyone can trust.”
Made in Britain
This shift toward local production and decentralisation emerged through the proliferation of small businesses. Being transparent as a smaller niche brand can have clear added business value– particularly when products are manufactured locally.
“Customers love to hear that independent retailers are producing products locally. It gives a warm pride to a local and an added value to a tourist. Wherever things are made, the consumer doesn't want to feel that they are complicit in any exploitation in labour conditions,” says Alison Lloyd, the designer behind quintessentially British bag label Ally Capellino. Producing their belts and smaller leather goods entirely in the UK, Alison understands the many immense challenges that can come with a “Made in Britain” tag. “People are very keen to buy British, but that does come with a higher price tag. The nature of the fashion industry is that designs are always new, which means that factories cannot tool up to any great degree.”
When smaller independent brands can be transparent about their manufacturing processes, it doesn’t just set an example for the industry, it gives them a great story to tell that can help them cut through the noise.
“I started Henri London with the mindset that local production was going to be part of my business, which set a precedent from the start. It's harder for the bigger retailers to change their deeply embedded production practices all in one go,” says Henriette Adams, who founded her line of fine women’s shirting about a year ago. “It's very clear that Henri shirts and accessories are ‘Made in London.’ It is clearly labeled on our packaging and labels. We talk about it on social media and on our website. It's something that we're immensely proud of, because it adds to the value of the product knowing it has supported local jobs and the local industry.”
London-born leather goods brand Tinct say the same about their efforts toward local manufacturing. “Be it a leather bag or a bag of carrots, knowing whether someone has made it or grown it with consideration for our planet, and passion for what they're doing, is a wonderful thing,” says Rosie Broad, one-half of the brother-sister duo behind Tinct. “Transparency keeps us calm. There’s no wool being pulled over our customers eyes to make a story of some kind.”
While older businesses and corporations lived in an era where advertising was king, and telling a story completely removed from reality was the way to sell products, times are changing.
“Today, your real company is your best fodder for storytelling, which is still counter-intuitive for lots of businesses,” says Jessi. “Using transparency to promote your work makes completes sense, but we should be careful about which facts are and aren’t genuine. The risk then lies into getting into “greenwashing” or falsely advertising yourself as a local brand, when you’re clearly not”.
She uses the craft beer industry as an example: if a craft beer company is bought up by a large conglomerate, but still markets itself as a locally produced product, what are the facts?
“It’s sort of insane that we buy products based on people’s word for it. We don’t trust food safety on people’s word for it– and I think where and how something was made is just as important. Until consumers have a framework for answering those questions using data, then transparency remains a one-sided marketing tactic.”
Nevertheless, the days of not caring where and how something is manufactured are over. Even though we still know surprisingly little about the products we buy, the future of retail is certainly more transparent.
Words by Lisa Roolant