Do you know your product history?

By Tim Wilson

I remember my Grandma occasionally using the word “iniquitous” – she would lean forward and forcibly expel the word into the room as part of the sentence describing those situations she considered utterly intolerable. I suspect a recent report suggesting that in the US, the top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012 - the highest level recorded since the government began collecting the relevant data a century ago - would have merited such a response. The UN’s assertion that globally, over 30% of all food is wasted most certainly would have triggered it (she was particularly strong on “waste not, want not”). Living in Leicester, the one-time heartland of the UK’s rag trade, I’m sure the death of more than 1,000 factory workers in an unsafe factory in Bangladesh would have tipped her over the edge too. However the recent CDP report showing that carbon emissions from the global top 50 emitters has gone up over the past 3 years wasn’t really a topic in her day.

But iniquitous is right – these, and many other exhibits from the current economic system are manifestly wrong. The system is broken and no amount of tinkering at the edges is going to fix it. The apparently unassailable pre-eminence of short term profit is perhaps at the heart of the problem. It’s not that profit is bad, far from it, nor is some sense of urgency in getting things done; but in the impossible trinity of “cheap, fast, good” why must “good” always be the one that gets left out?

It seems that the answer to this comes down to our ability to measure. We are experts at measuring time. In most parts of the planet you can ask someone what time it is, and make arrangements to do something a defined amount of time later. There is little discussion or dissent on units and so “tomorrow” is recognised as always faster than “next week”. We are increasingly competent at measuring cheap, especially now that we smart-phone wielding consumers can indulge in “showrooming”, taking price comparison local and real-time. But what is “good”, and how shall we all agree to measure it?

For most consumers, “good” means fit for purpose – “it meets my expectations”, a notion of expected quality. Whilst that is difficult to objectively measure, it is subjectively obvious and entirely assessed within the product itself. But if the definition of “good” is widened to include any factors outside the product itself – how did it get here, how was it made, by whom and from what – then it rapidly becomes impossible to assess at all. There is simply no information available; to anybody.

Allegedly it was John Ruskin who said “There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply”. With the advent of globalisation and products now being “made in the world” rather than in any specific country, we might replace “a little” with “a great deal” in that quote. As a result, in the space of 2 or 3 generations we have completely changed how products are made, making them quicker, cheaper and severing any connection between their origin and fate. 75% of my sustainability impact as a consumer is from the products and services I buy and yet there is no structured information available about how they were made.

So, to help measure “good”, I would bring together 5 of Mike Barry’s list of 7 new business models under one broad heading – product history. Radical transparency allows the history of a product to be known, which influences consumer behaviour, facilitates closed loop, enables shorter supply-chains and fosters collaboration at scale. Today, it is thought necessary to withhold or obscure this information as it is a source of competitive advantage in the race for “cheap” and “fast”. Tomorrow, failure to provide it will be penalised – by nimble collaborators in the value-chain, by regulators and by consumers.

People will say it can’t be done. They will say it is too complex, too costly and that it erodes their competitive position. They are wrong. It can be done; I know because I’ve done it.

It is complex, but it’s not exactly rocket surgery. It’s only too costly if your economic model doesn’t include external impacts created by your products and processes. It strengthens your competitive position, provided you had one in the first place.

The question is how shall we achieve it? How shall we make this new requirement clear to businesses all over the world? How shall we move people from where they are, sitting comfortably in capitalism 1.0? Which reminds me of the other times my grandma used to lean forward and forcibly expel something into the room, but that’s another story.