Product Transparency is Coming…Will your Favorite Brands Tell You Where Their Products Came From?

A story in this week’s Financial Times – England’s leading business paper – argues:

“We are approaching a tipping point…beyond which everyone will want to know the provenance of their products.”

The author bases this assertion on the rapid growth in ethical purchasing in the UK and a number of recent initiatives from retailers and manufacturers to respond to consumer demands to know where their food, t-shirts, jewelry, pharmaceuticals, and other products come from.

The seemingly simple question – “Where did this product come from?” – turns out to be extremely difficult for retailers to answer due to the increasingly complex and far-flung supply chains behind most products. And until recently, most retailers preferred not to know.

John Elkington, one of the world’s leading experts on ethical consumption, is quoted in the article arguing that

“most supermarkets were disinterested [in this question]… until their customers started expressing preferences. Then things changed very quickly indeed.”

Put simply, consumers are asking retailers, and in turn retailers are asking brands to trace their products from the farm to your fork, or from the factory to your family room. With recent food contaminant scandals and product recalls, it is becoming critical for companies to be able to trace their full supply chains.

The FT article discusses a number of interesting initiatives on tracing and transparency. For example, Historic Futures, a UK company, has developed an online tool called String, which enables companies to see each stage of a product’s supply chain. Dole is labeling its organic bananas with a three-digit number that, when entered into its website, can show consumers the details of the farm where the banana was grown. Icebreaker has created a BaaCode system to give consumers information on where the wool in their garments was sourced.

So what do these early initiatives mean for the overall market?

Interestingly, the FT reporter concludes for companies that “If you do not make information about your supply chain publicly available, the chances are increasing that consumers will do it for you. They are being aided by technologies such as GoodGuide…”

The one thing I would add (to this nice hat tip to GoodGuide) is that we are working not to do it to companies, but rather, to advance transparency with companies as they realize that traceability and transparency are going to be critical issues for their customers in coming years. Check out our transparency initiative and let us know of other firms that are leading or lagging on product transparency.

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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2 Responses to Product Transparency is Coming…Will your Favorite Brands Tell You Where Their Products Came From?

  1. Cally Smith says:

    This sounds absolutely excellent – my mission at the moment is to find Palm Oil free products – absolutely impossible, and no retailers, supermarkets etc know, or want to know. This issue as well as many many more, equally important ethical issues HAS TO BE addressed now before it really is too late. I challenge anyone to put this particular issue on the front line and get results. I would say without any doubt that 99% of companies are lagging on product transparency regarding palm oil content……..but then they have got the RSPO to fall back on………………Cally

  2. Alex says:

    I guess product transparency is good, but consumers can not obsess over the thousands of products out there. Its almost like a lose-lose.

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