How technology can expose bad business

Real-time data platforms and other new technologies can help promote transparency in supply chains and call out environmental abuse, says John Elkington, founding partner and executive chairman of Volans.

fishermen on boat
Burmese fishing crew onboard a Thai fishing boat. Asia's fishing industry has recently been under scrutiny for labour exploitation, a practice that new technologies may be able to help expose. Image: Kevin Hellon /

I love the power of that good old Americanism “drinking at the firehose”— meaning being fed data way faster than the mind can absorb. But information overload is now our daily reality as we plunge even deeper into the world of exponential innovation and entrepreneurship. And as we struggle to keep our noses above the riptides, one theme keeps popping to the surface: provenance.

When we hunted mammoths, we didn’t care much about provenance. Later, when we bought products by leaning over a farmer’s gate, we knew where our food was coming from, if we cared to think about it.

But waves of globalisation have ensured that the sources of what we buy became increasingly hazy. No problem if supply chains were run by angels, but as companies like Nike found to their cost, angelic values rarely survive an encounter with hard-driving, greed-is-good capitalism. 

To ensure at least a degree of transparency and authenticity, people like the port wine producers used red-hot irons to sear their brands into the barrels their wine was shipped in. But as globalisation continued to extend our supply chains, line-of-sight transparency for many products stretched—and then snapped.

This was brought home to me recently in, of all places, London Zoo. I loathe zoos, but had been invited to chair a convening of various elements of the global tuna supply chain.

In the room were the likes of Tesco (a major UK supermarket chain), fish canners like John West (recently at the epicentre of a major controversy around the unsustainability of their tuna supply chain) and Princes (owned by Mitsubishi), seafood suppliers like New England Seafood, and a number of key NGOs, from edgy to mainstream.

As school children pressed their noses to the windows, wondering what sort of animals we were, we debated issues that are literally life and death — and not just for fish and fisherfolk. One way in which the world has tried to get a grip on illegal fishing, for example, has been to post trained observers aboard fishing vessels. Several have disappeared, presumably murdered.

So it’s easy to see how emotions can run high. Indeed, I had been warned that the zoo process could mirror what would happen if all the cages were to be opened. Hardly. It was soon clear that everyone wanted to tackle the systemic dysfunctions in global supply chains.

But one of many unanswered questions I went away with was how new technology might bring the sources of fish like tuna back within our collective line of sight.

One possibility: Blockchain. This technology has gained much media exposure—and some notoriety—in recent times, mainly because of its role in powering Bitcoin, the alternative currency. Shortly after the tuna event, I talked to Jessi Baker, CEO of Provenance, whose aim is to use Blockchain to “build trust in great companies and their products”.

Their pitch: “Every day we buy products that impact our planet. Opaque supply chains are devastating environments and compromising the wellbeing of people, animals and communities. Every product and business is different, but rarely do we have the information we need to make positive choices about what to buy.”

Provenance, we are told, is “a real-time data platform that empowers brands to take steps toward greater transparency by tracing the origins and histories of products. With our technology you can easily gather and verify stories, keep them connected to physical things and embed them anywhere online.”

When I asked Baker about her own provenance, she explained that she had been working on a PhD in crypto-currencies when she began to wonder whether the same technology could be used to inform consumer choice along complex supply chains. The aim was to give consumers the “back stories of products” in ways that could be shared via social media. 

Though she noted that Provenance is still proving the underlying technology and has no plans to provide any form of scoring system, Baker is confident that Blockchain will enable and power new forms of certification that can help clean up supply chains—and provide valuable point-of-sale differentiation. 

But along the way she expects to see the same sort of competitive and political struggles that marred the early years of the Internet. In this case, there will be a growing need for common protocols and open data standards ensuring that new forms of provenance do what they say they do on the can.

How do we shine an exponentially brighter spotlight on the breakdown trajectories in the global economy? 

Volans recently co-hosted an event on the theme “Will Tech Unicorns Save Our Planet” at London’s Google-supported Campus. I met some fascinating would-be exponential organisations, including Yoti — which is working to do for people what Provenance plans to do for products like fish.

But most of these technologies work for consenting adults doing good work—and who want to be recognised as such. What about those who have embraced the dark side? How do we shine an exponentially brighter spotlight on the breakdown trajectories in the global economy? 

We also recently hosted Gillian Caldwell, the new CEO of Global Witness, one of my very favourite NGOs. They do astounding—and often hazardous—work in exposing corruption and environmental abuse. Their three-fold mission: to find the facts, uncover the story, and change the system. So how do we also turn that work into a new generation of apps?

Like it or not, brave people, including Global Witness and tuna-fishing observers, will still need to put their lives at risk. But there must be ways to bend these new technologies—among them Blockchain, drones, big data and artificial intelligence—to the task of exposing those creating bad impact, not just those providing and tracking the good impact the world increasingly says it wants. 

John Elkington is founding partner and executive chairman of Volans, and also co-founder of SustainAbility. This article was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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