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By Zita Goldman
How locking product information into the blockchain can help empower responsible shopping.
Everyone has either heard similar stories or harboured concerns that what happened to James might happen to them as well. James’s neighbour was a believer in pesticides. The obnoxious fumes from his garden often suffused the air of James’s plot, and James was getting increasingly irritated by the pungent smell of the pesticide spray, and the conduct of his neighbour.
One day James went to the local farmer’s market, where, lo and behold, there was his neighbour behind a stall selling his produce under a huge Organic Apples sign.
You may dismiss markets as dodgy places if you’re not inclined to trust your fellow human beings. But similar cheats can happen in the controlled environment of supermarkets and retail outlets too, when products sold at a premium have false environmental, labour or sustainability credentials.
Blockchain, a maturing technology that has been around for three decades now, is a strong candidate for becoming a solution for the verification of provenance claims. Being distributed and next-to-impossible to tamper with undetected, it can ensure the safe storage and management of digital data. Certificates, proofs of action and evidences from suppliers can be written onto the blockchain and becomes retrievable for any authorised member of the network. It’s also a great way to address the issue of data silos and achieve efficiencies.
The blockchain with the right number of independent nodes will retain whatever data is written on it. But for the system to work well as a verification tool, it’s also essential to guarantee the validity of the proofs locked into it.
Linking digital and physical identities
To make sure the digital ledger is linked to real-life products, those products need to have a serialised digital identity. Serialisation translates the object state into a format that can be stored or transmitted and reconstructed later. Nowadays, the item-level information belonging to products is typically stored in QR codes or RFID tags, but the problem is that both are highly cloneable, which may undermine blockchain’s reputation for immutability if taken advantage of.
There is, however, an emerging breed of physically unclonable functions (PUFs) serving as tamper-resistant IDs. Diamond unclonable security tags, or DUSTs, for example, are made of low-cost industrial diamond waste embedded in polymer. By scanning DUSTs, physical goods, related information about their components and the production processes, as well as relevant certificates can be entered into the blockchain. The IoT-enabling machine-to-machine communication technology has the potential of taking end-to-end automation one step further, where RFID tags, smart chips and sensors broadcast data directly onto the blockchain network. This can further eliminate the chances of human errors and fraud.
What automation can’t bypass is the “first mile”, the stage of physically verifying that raw materials, production environments and processes do meet certification standards. It’s not enough for the data that gets into the blockchain to be immutable, it is equally important that it’s authentic. And the best way to achieve this is the adoption of blockchain by certification companies to make sure that marks and seals of approvals issued by established and trusted certifiers and licensees get locked in straight away.
And there are signs that this is already happening. We can witness tech start-ups and certification entities form successful partnerships. DNV GL, a 160-year-old Norwegian physical registrar and classification society, kept its portfolio of certificates on public blockchain Ethereum and then migrated them to VeChain, a Singapore-based Chinese competitor in the space, which they also bought a stake in. (This is the more surprising as VeChain is a bona fide blockchain running two cryptocurrencies – one for value transfer, one to power transactions.)
MyStory, DNV GL’s VeChain-based project, designed to protect high-end brands in its initial stage, undertakes physical independent audits, the collection and verification of the manufacturer’s activities, certificates and data, as well as the issuance of digital IDs, and then transfers all this data onto the blockchain. Before making informed purchasing decisions, customers can scan the MyStory QR code on the product and browse through all the relevant information recorded on the blockchain along the supply chain cycle.
Closer to home, Provenance, a British platform for gathering and sharing product information, has spotted a growing trend of brands withdrawing from sustainability assurance schemes due to their inability to communicate the added value of certification marks to their customers. In order to address both this problem and that of consumer trust deficit, they have teamed up with leading organic certification body The Soil Association, founded in 1947.
The Soil Association’s mission is to mitigate soil degradation and the excessive use of pesticides Hovering a mobile phone over the product’s NFC-powered Soil Association mark in the shop will activate all the information gathered on the blockchain along the produce’s journey from farm to store. This way, consumers who choose to pay a premium for organic apples can rest assured that the ones they are buying won’t have any of the pesticide residues their non-organic versions supposedly contain.
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