How many times has a product been bought with no understanding of the supply chain that was created in order to bring it from its origin to the store? How many times has a piece of clothing from an underdeveloped country that pays its workers pennies an hour made it to a store on the high street?

Now more than ever, the provenance of products is critical to understanding the global impact of everyday actions such as buying dinner or a new outfit. Consumers are demanding more transparency and are using their wallets to make their point.

And now a London-based company is helping to create a pathway for companies to not only disclose their supply chain operations, but also to give a human face to the products sold: Provenance.

What is Provenance?

Provenance is an app that makes supply chains transparent for businesses and consumers. It’s name literally means “the place of origin” and it is one of the most ambitious companies to work on product transparency. By using blockchain technology, a distributed and open database that maintains a growing list of records called “blocks” that cannot be modified once entered into a block, the company is creating product paths from its point of origin to its point of sale.

Everyone who can contribute to the story of a product is given a chance to share important information, from how and where a product is sourced to its manufacturing process

The app is more than just an app: it’s a platform, one that allows everyone from consumers and retailers to nonprofit organisations and manufacturers to contribute to the story of a product.

Collaboration and integration are paramount to the app; these are reinforced through a brand’s own online presence. Everyone who can contribute to the story of a product is given a chance to share important information, from how and where a product is sourced to a product’s manufacturing process, through the Provenance platform. This ensures that by the time the product gets to the consumer, the product’s story is complete. And for retailers who are committed to transparency, Provenance has a gift: physical ID number tags that can be placed on products that are bought and sold.

The woman behind the company

Jessi Baker is the founder of Provenance. Trained as a manufacturing engineer, Baker grew up in the Wiltshire region of England with an ethically conscious mother.

Jessi Baker, founder of Provenance

“She raised me, my brother and sister, to care about what we eat and buy, but also helped us understand from an early age where things come from,” Baker said in an interview with the BBC. She went on to say that: “For a long time, I think most of our meals came from under one mile from our home in Wiltshire, vegetables from the garden and animal products from our neighbour’s farm.”

The ethical conscious lifestyle that Baker grew up with never truly left her. Her curiosity about knowing where products and food come from followed her through to university, where she read for manufacturing engineering and ultimately came up with the idea for this company.

Motivations and background

Baker’s childhood of conscious consumption served as one of the motivations behind Provenance, but it wasn’t the only motivation.

When Baker was studying for her PhD in computer science, she took time to research emerging blockchain technology, which is still in its infancy. It was while understanding this technology, which is basically a shared data system that allows an entire community to share vital information that can be trusted, that Provenance took form.

Provenance began in 2013 as a part-time hobby for Baker while she continued her studies; however, she has since put her PhD on hold. Provenance is now her full-time job, as she’s currently managing a team of 10 people across four countries.

The company believes that a whole host of products, not just food, can be tracked and sourced using its technology.

The first product that Provenance successfully tracked was tuna; the accomplishment came in early 2016 and hailed from Indonesia. Working with nongovernmental organisations in the country and also on the international stage, Provenance basically created a digital passport for tuna, allowing consumers at the tail-end of the supply chain to be able to track the fish back its source.

Provenance has moved past that first accomplishment and tracks other ethical sources of food, including eggs and dairy, but its aspirations are much larger: the company believes that a whole host of products, not just food, can be tracked and sourced using its technology.

Provenance has been working with small brands since its inception, but in July of 2016, it signed its first commercial client: the UK’s fifth-largest grocery retailer, Co-op. But Baker isn’t quite done with her vision for the company. She told the BBC that:

“The ultimate goal of Provenance is that one day it will be impossible to buy a product that compromises your health and morals. Businesses that have very opaque supply chains and are not taking active steps to make them transparent should really fear us.”

How communities benefit from Provenance

In a nutshell, Provenance is providing people in communities the chance to see where the products they buy most often are coming from. This often leads to a greater awareness and appreciation for ethical products, which can then lead to a demand for more transparency.

In modern society, transparency in business is key to creating trust between a company and a conscious consumer. A product generally doesn’t give a lot of information to consumers about the point of origin or whether it was ethically sourced, leading to a disconnect between a consumer and the people who actually create the products they buy in stores. By making transparency an element of a retailer’s story, brands are ensuring loyalty to their products by a conscious consumer base that support its ethical and sustainable practices.

Communities are affected as well; Provenance highlights suppliers who have a good reputation for ethical sourcing, making these companies visible to retailers and brands that may want to do business with them. Because many products in the US and the UK are sourced internationally, the exposure that Provenance creates is important for business growth for underdeveloped countries.

How Provenance works

How Provenance works depends on whether a user is a business, a shopper, or a nonprofit. While Provenance has different results depending on how a person approaches the app, the mission is the same: to create a transparent supply chain that tells the story and impact of individual products and businesses.

For businesses

Provenance provides two data systems for businesses: a transparency suite of tools to help businesses assemble identifying information about products for story and product pages that consumers can browse through Provenance and a traceability system that confirms the information inputted by companies to ensure that all information is accurate.

By using blockchain technology, a distributed and open database that maintains a growing list of records called “blocks” that cannot be modified once entered into a block, the company is creating product paths from its point of origin to its point of sale

The company is building its traceability system from scratch, using blockchain technology. This is a term for a data system that securely stores information on an open platform that cannot be changed. Businesses can also choose to have its Provenance data linked physically to products through smart tags or embeds on its website, allowing consumers to get the full picture of a product’s journey even before purchasing that item.

Businesses can apply to become a part of the Provenance platform and will be given the opportunity to create a profile for itself as well as its products. This profile page will be available for consumers and will list as much information on the company’s supply chain practises as possible.

For non-profit organisations

Non-profit organisations that work on certifying products, such as Leaping Bunny or Rainforest Alliance, are often found labelled on products that aren’t legitimately certified. The best example of this is Eluxe Magazine’s piece on Melissa, the “vegan leather,” cruelty-free brand that was found to be using ethical credentials on its website when it had not been awarded that distinction. Those credentials have since been removed from the retailer’s site.

That’s where Provenance comes in. The company works with not-for-profit awarding organisations, like the FSC and Fairtrade UK, to ensure that the verified information for a given business or product is digitally secure and can be embedded anywhere on the web. If a product has been awarded a marquee or certificate, Provenance ensures that the distinction shows up next to the product with a smart web link to that distinction.

For shoppers

Shoppers have the ability to use the company’s plugins as a way to find out about the impact and standards behind products that have a transparent supply chain. Additionally, some retailers have physical ID tags on products that shoppers can then use to unlock a secure digital history that tells them about their product’s journey from origin to point of sale.They can also suggest online retailers that could do with a bit more transparency about their products.

Provenance is also in the middle of providing shoppers with a search tool that will help them filter products by particular provenance as well as give them options to ask questions about a provenance in their community. Shoppers can also become ambassadors for Provenance, allowing them to work on behalf of the company to secure information from manufacturers and retailers to be used on the app.

Provenance for all

This is a company that was created to keep everyone informed about the products they use in their everyday life. By using emerging technology to create a secure and open database that can be browsed by anyone, Provenance is making it possible to hold companies to account for their actions. It’s not only a noble effort by a growing team of passionate engineers, it’s also a signal that consumers are ready to demand more from businesses. For many consumers, Provenance is making an appearance right when they’re ready to demand more transparency.

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