Blockchain technology will revolutionise brand protection in the food industry.
Or so I’ve heard.
It was Autumn. And I sat glued to my phone; pawing through a list of uninspiring snippets on Twitter. The train hadn’t moved in what felt like an hour and I was on the verge of downloading Angry Birds in spite.
It was days before I was to attend the BRC Brand Protection conference and my eyes were searching for anything of relevance. My thumb hovered menacingly over the ‘x’, ready to close the app and - as if in response - twitter suddenly refreshed.
It all began with a tweet from an unfamiliar name - Provenance.
Opening the tweet, their website instantly grabbed my attention as I scanned through its slick and heavy gloss:
- Building trust in supply chain
- Map your products journey
- Collaborating with suppliers
- Sharing supplier information at point of sale
I tried to dig beneath the surface and decipher what their platform actually was. Were they a start-up Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system provider? A Point of Sale (POS) manufacturer stretching the truth a little? Or perhaps simply a brand agency with an interesting piece of tech?
It was the Blockchain.
To Wikipedia – fountain of knowledge. And a convenient boost to any blog post word count:
A blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of ordered records called blocks. Each block contains a timestamp and a link to a previous block.
By design blockchains are inherently resistant to modification of the data — once recorded, the data in a block cannot be altered retroactively.
Blockchains are "an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. The ledger itself can also be programmed to trigger transactions automatically.
- Blockchain, Wikipedia
Securely record product components as they travel through the supply chain.
The train pulled into St Pancras and I was jolted from my thought as they were shunted to the back of my mind. But not for long.
The following day they were temporarily summoned as a press release from Walmart HQ announced their partnership with IBM to trial blockchain technology for their pork supply chain in China.
A few weeks go by and more than a couple of clients had casually dropped it into the conversation - technology they are keen to explore the potential of.
So, driven by desire to be of some help as those clients progress their understanding (and more so a burning curiosity to find out more), I vowed to become an informed amateur.
Back to Batch
One area leading the way in Blockchain technology is the diamond supply chain. Here’s a great little video on the process. However, the nature of food production introduces some limitations that aren’t simply found.
For example, the fundamental part of Provenance’s vision is the ability for any consumer to be able to see each person, process and production facility that helped their product come to be.
I love this. Supplier stories are a passion of mine. And this utopian picture of scanning a barcode with my smart phone and meeting Peter the picker and Percy the packer and knowing they touched my pickles filled me with joy.
But unfortunately, I fear it is only a utopian vision.
Imagine a lasagne. The one from your favourite premium own brand range – that one. Yum.
Any single production run of lasagnes may be made from multiple batches of mince beef, each from a different source.
What does the customer see when they scan their Blockchain barcode?
Best case: a selection of production facilities and beef farmers, of which any one could have been responsible for the meal on the table – blockchain simply couldn’t tell you.
Far from building trust, an 'excessive' amount transparency risks exposing the average consumer to the complexity of the modern supply chain and harming their product perception.
However, a more realistic prediction: Customers see the visible result of poor supplier engagement through a patch work of partially completed supplier profiles with non-descript profile images.
Blockchain's distributed ledger will provide a more trustworthy source of transactional product processing history. But Blockchain will not remove the need for supplier engagement and cohesion at scale. Quite the opposite in fact.
Levels of industry wide collaboration not seen since GS1 Barcodes were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s will be required to roll out en mass.
All supply chain entities will be required to use compatible processes, equipment and output languages to collect meaningful and reliable information.
Plus, any supporting consumer-facing must be maintained regardless of supplier or personnel changes, peak demand needing temporary sourcing arrangements or the usual business-as-usual excuses for poor systems engagement.
Any weak link will not only undermine the whole Blockchain but makes those weak links more visible to the consumer than ever before.
There are compelling applications of this technology.
Particularly where a closed supply chain focusing on value-added commodity ‘refinement’ and sufficient 'clout' overlap like: Certified Diamonds, MsC filleted Fish and Walmart's butcher pork supply chain in China.
Having supported many a retailer with their annual RSPO Palm Oil Reporting, this data collection process also jumps to mind as an exciting application scoring strongly in the three requirements.
In conclusion, Blockchain uses new technology to improve the efficiency of old batch code processes. But it will not a game changer without industry wide commitment, collaboration and, of course, consistent supplier engagement.