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The Provenance Paradox

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

A paradox is when something runs contrary to one’s expectation. Familiar examples include M.C. Escher’s perspective-based drawings of hands, stairs, floors and ceilings which inspire a subtle spatial vertigo, or the classic liar’s paradox which is captured when a liar simply states, “I am lying.” Think about that for a few minutes and you’ll find yourself gently reeling in a mental hall of mirrors.

There is also a paradox to be found in the quest to implement product transparency initiatives and capture the attention of increasingly discerning consumers. Illuminating the provenance of products alongside the social and environmental realities connected to them is fast becoming a high priority for brand owners. Understanding the “provenance paradox” yields a more useful reward than the subtle nausea induced by certain other paradoxes. Brand owners on a mission to successfully implement transparency in their supply chains can benefit from a strategy that avoids it. Like a river guide offering a map of treacherous rocks and currents to navigate around before everyone boards, this post intends to help brand owners see what’s to come, set expectations, and ultimately help them dodge avoidable pitfalls.

The provenance paradox: Many brands embraced provenance transparency because of the allure of enhanced consumer engagement. As a result, they invested early in consumer-facing traceability solutions, and were disappointed with low consumer engagement. To avoid this somewhat inevitable disappointment, brands should invest early in internal data and evidence organization, standardization, and extraction from their existing supply chains. Doing this foundational work, however counterintuitive it may feel, is the shortest path to the consumer engagement they seek.

The story of any finished product begins with raw materials and accelerates into complexity as materials are combined, transformed, and transported. It ends only when a finished good is either recycled or when microorganisms decompose it into raw materials once again. In between those elemental start and end points are myriad transformations and handoffs between parties and locations. The story of product provenance may be short and simple in the case of a fish caught at sea and served on a dinner plate hours later, or it may be extraordinarily complex as in the case of a desktop computer requiring a long list of specialty components sourced from all over the globe. In complex finished products, one can imagine how multiple provenance stories branch from each of the materials contained within it.

Regardless of a product’s compositional complexity, provenance stories are comprised of 3 foundational variables: products, places, and people. It is how and when these 3 variables interact over time, and the quality of evidence provided to substantiate them, that makes for a unique provenance story.

For a consumer to find a provenance story compelling—and choose to engage with it—it must meet their specific relevance criteria. Each of us has different criteria depending upon our demographics, lifestyle, values, beliefs, experiences, obligations and responsibilities. A busy working parent, whose child has a dairy allergy, may not care whether renewable energy was used at the manufacturing facility where a package of peanut butter crackers was created; But, they certainly care whether the crackers contain dairy. A faster, more efficient way to access information about common allergens would be compelling to them. Knowledge of an immutable trail of ingredient sources and handoffs might better earn that parent’s trust, even if they rarely or never have time to click through and verify all the details. Other consumers may demand more detail and only engage if more complex product stories are revealed, such as the source of palm oil contained within the crackers, or whether the brand’s global employee pool meets the minimum age criteria for work.

While consumers may not expect brands to be able to produce these complex stories from day one of a transparency initiative, they do expect to follow along as brands provide more and more evidence of their existing corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, and dig deeper into their supply chains to provide evidence that supports the many promises they make to consumers such as: “dairy free”, “age-appropriate labor”, “equal pay”, or “sustainably harvested”. Because there are endless claims to make and substantiate, we advise brands to identify early which promises matter most to their consumers and then develop a roadmap to add more detail over time.

What might a minimum threshold of relevance look like when applied to consumers? If consumers open a transparency application, and all they find is information that replicates the physical product label, they will likely decide the application isn’t relevant. Worse, if they perceive a thinly-veiled marketing initiative, masquerading as a transparency initiative, they likely won’t return and the brand has risked tarnished their trust. Transparency initiatives should provide information above and beyond what consumers can find on a label today, and back it up with as much evidence as possible to foster trust. Identifying your brand’s most relevant threshold means knowing what information and evidence you must prepare upfront to support the expectations of your consumers.

If, for example you are a food brand and know that 30% of your consumer base likely has a food allergy, you may decide that allergens are your most relevant threshold and feel comfortable launching your consumer-facing interface with that focus. If you are an apparel brand, and you know that 50% of your consumers are demanding more information about sustainable sourcing, you may decide that you need to implement a materials traceability program to gain more visibility into upstream supplier practices before ever launching a consumer-facing version of that data. If you are a brand that has already implemented strong CSR initiatives but your consumers are largely unaware of them or don’t understand the nuances, you might be well served to launch consumer-facing information sooner rather than later to highlight these achievements.

The threshold for each brand will be different, but all brands must follow the same strategic steps to avoid falling victim to the provenance paradox:

  1. Identify the types of information and depths of evidence that are required to satisfy the relevance threshold of your consumer base.

  2. Invest upfront in the internal practices and processes needed to prepare information and evidence. This may mean cleaning and standardizing existing data, or it may mean implementing a multi-month or even multi-year plan to extract relevant data from your upstream supply chain partners.

  3. Launch your consumer-facing interface(s) with as rich and complete of data as possible to earn and maintain attention.

  4. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Once you’ve launched something to consumers, they expect to see continued improvement. Progress will keep them engaged; Stagnation will lose them, perhaps forever.

Thoughtful engagement, preparation, and incentivization of your supply chain is the fastest way to gain authentic user engagement. Don’t treat transparency initiatives as either a duplication of the label or as a marketing channel. Invest in the quality of provenance data first, and consumers will come to recognize the unique value you offer. In return, they will invest in your brand with trust, honest feedback, and loyal attention.


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