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Consumers are the Whole Problem; And it's Not Their Fault

What links climate change, pollution, child and forced labor, and deforestation? The answer is very simple: Us. The choices we make as consumers—what we buy, and how much we are willing to pay for things—have huge knock-on effects. Our collective buying behaviors impact the environment, fair trade, and human rights. And yet, in many ways, that’s not our fault, because it’s almost impossible for a consumer to know the real impact of the products she buys every day. A cheap t-shirt might be made responsibly, or it might be made from cotton grown using forced labor and sewn in a Vietnamese factory that doesn’t use age-appropriate labor. Flowers flown in from South America so we can enjoy a cheerful splash of color in our homes year-round may have a carbon footprint that would shock us. But how are we to know? Roughly half of the products for sale in grocery stores contain palm oil, including ice creams, peanut butter crackers, household cleaning and beauty products. Malaysia and Indonesia are home to 85% of the world’s palm oil production. Some plantations have terrible human rights records and are planted on stolen, deforested land. Whole families—mothers, fathers, and their children—are paid a pittance to labor under difficult and dangerous conditions where they are exposed to toxic pesticides with no protective equipment. Workers are often abused and young girls are raped in the fields.

Many consumers would be horrified to learn the impact of their purchases on people half a world away. Those conscious consumers who are aware of the environmental and human rights costs of consumerism find it incredibly difficult to discern which products they can buy with confidence. How are we to know which products are made in a way that is consistent with our values, and which are not? The supply chains that serve us are often opaque and there is only so much information that can be conveyed in the tiny real-estate afforded to labels on product packaging. It’s unfair to expect consumers to make informed buying decisions when it’s so difficult to know the true origin and impact of the products we buy each day. Brands face similar challenges. Most operate complex, multi-layered supply chains that stretch around the globe. Visibility into the origin of raw materials, ingredients, or piece parts several layers up the supply chain can be incredibly difficult. This exposes brands to risk as they struggle to keep the promises they make to consumers. All raw materials either come out of a mine, a well, a forest, or a field. That’s how everything in our lives starts out, from frozen pizzas and pharmaceuticals to game consoles and garments. Tracing each item’s origin back to the earth is a huge challenge, but new technology will finally make that possible. What if we could build an open network to connect all the actors involved in our supply chains—brands, suppliers, growers, miners, brokers, retailers, distributors, logistics, and ultimately consumers—so they could exchange information on how products are made and transported? What if that network had the ability to provide incentives for everyone to contribute data to the network? And what if we could organize all that information and put it at the fingertips of brand managers and consumers so they could make better informed decisions? With transparent supply chains, brand managers could favor suppliers willing to offer digital proof that they operate in a way consistent with a brands’ values. Brands could make claims to consumers backed by evidence. Consumers could buy products without confusion or guilt that they are inadvertently contributing to a world that isn’t consistent with their values. To address complex issues like child and forced labor, fair trade, deforestation, pollution, and climate change we must address supply chain transparency, empower consumers and brands with the tools they need to make informed decisions, and then allow the power of the market to align supply chain activity with human values.