Workshop Report: How can you control something you can’t see?

By Tim Kitchin

How can you control something you can’t see? And don’t know? Er. You can’t. To make better products tomorrow we must know where they come from today. This was the thrust of Tim Wilson’s argument at the Value Chain Mapping workshop at the Museum of Brands in London’s Notting Hill. A blend of supply-chain owners, consultants, data specialists and standards setters assembled to see if it was true. And if so, what it meant for them.

They concluded, I think, that it was true, but that knowing the origins of a product would still not fully fix the problem. Confronted with an intellectual banquet to eat, a few were inclined to plead an upset stomach, rather than tucking into the tasty and satisfying data nibbles that had been discoverable in the past.

The problem with challenges like “how to make ‘better’ product” is that dozens of people are involved in the decision and any incremental changes can feel a bit hopeless. The approach taken to the day was an open brainstorm – just dumping thoughts onto post it notes – and then grouping them by theme.

A process of community labelling then revealed the meaning hidden in the suggestion. But what did we really learn as participants? Well firstly, that there is minimal structured thinking behind this question. Nobody owns the totality of the provenance and production opportunity in organisations - complete with its brand, legal, cost and competitiveness concerns. Hundreds of topics actually emerged, with very little consistency.

And secondly, that there is a lot more emphasis on avoiding knowledge than a consumer might imagine. Reasons not to know significantly outnumbered reasons to know. This probably reflects an air of resignation at the componentised, ‘made in the world’ culture we now grapple with, as well as the more pragmatic fact that it’s harder to be sued for not knowing stuff, than for knowing it.

There was actually a level of scepticism from some in the room that ethical issues should be dealt with at all. Wasn’t it for markets, eventually to achieve the rise in labour standards? Weren’t democracy, globalisation and competition the answer? Weren’t child labour and slavery for example, just transient NGO hobby-horses that would be fixed by globalisation?

By contrast, some of the simplest most compelling business cases emerged from globalisation itself. Many participants were interested in the ability to quickly test new ‘contentious’ markets while keeping ethical standards high – by having a clear and accountable direct sourcing strategy.

Others saw rapid benefit in claiming export tariff quotas from within the regulatory soup of 300 regional trade agreements.

Towards the end of this very theoretical debate, Wilson and his colleague Simon Himmens-Warrick unveiled an early prototype of their new solution: ‘String3’. The approach intends to gather data on a viral basis, through each party in the supply chain asking questions of his predecessor in the chain. The approach works a bit like a source-worm. Its vital benefit being to create a visualised, complete chain of production, without exposing participants to risk of data theft or privacy invasion.

It would give valuable statistically valuable information about value-chain configurations, without having to examine every single product or batch - like building a world-map, without the topography. The clever bit is that participants would be heavily incentivised to pass it on so as not to create a red-flag in the system by creating an empty link in the chain.

As the scepticism melted away in the face of a real software tool, the elegance of this ‘protected referral’ approach to data gathering started to hit home. As the workshop wound down, a lot more people were now gathered round the metaphorical banquet table, and tucking into the more exotic pastries.

This participant certainly concluded that there is every reason to take control of your supply-chain - to start solving your product provenance and production issues, by knowing what you can know, even if you can’t yet see how to know everything.

Tim Kitchin, Sustainability Adviser