Picture credit: Creative Commons ShareAlike 4.0/2.0, right picture by Gage Skidmore.

We Need to Start Listening to the Facts

In an era of huge global challenges, consumers need transparency and new tools to help them make the right choices.

Yesterday Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump both addressed the World Economic Forum. The contrast between their messages could not have been more stark.

On one hand, Greta spoke about scientific facts and data. She exhorted us to move beyond vague sustainability rhetoric, towards making tangible, quantifiable progress on carbon reduction and sustainability targets. She recalled key statistics with exacting detail, saying:

In Chapter Two, on page 108 in the SR 1.5 IPCC report that came out in 2018, it says that if we are to have a 67 percent chance of limiting the global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we had on January 1st, 2018, about 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit in that budget…With today’s emissions levels, that remaining budget is gone within less than eight years…

This is the current best available science… I’ve been repeating these numbers over and over again in almost every speech… I know you don’t want to talk about this, but I assure you I will continue to repeat these numbers until you do.

Trump’s speech, on the other hand, involved a noticeable lack of facts and data when it came to environmental topics, saying “we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse. They are the heirs of yesterday’s fortune tellers.” The one relevant point of data that he did choose to cite was that “the United States is now, by far, the №1 producer of oil and gas. It’s not even close.”

This vivid moment of contrast between data-driven transparency and its opposite feels like an apt encapsulation of debates about sustainability, consumption and progress in modern life more broadly. In almost every aspect of our lives, we have near-perfect information, delivered instantaneously. My smartphone can tell me every minuscule detail of my finances in real-time, my exact location on a map, and the fastest way to get to my next destination.

But this high level of facts and transparency all but disappears when I want to know details of something I want to buy. Go to the seafood counter at your local supermarket and you’ll be able to choose between several different types of fish, but have no way to know who caught the fish, where it was caught, whether it was sustainable to catch it there, or how it got from the fishing vessel all the way to the supermarket. This goes for nearly every product we buy, from cans of soup to t-shirts.

This desperate lack of transparency is not only jarringly at odds with what we’ve come to expect in almost all other aspects of our lives today, it also has profound implications for humanity and the planet. As I write this post, fires are burning from California to Australia, we’re losing wildlife at an unprecedented pace, and modern slavery in supply chains is widespread.

At the root of all of these problems are decisions, human decisions, to produce something one way and not another. As consumers, we unwittingly become complicit in these decisions when we purchase products.

Given the choice, I don’t believe anyone wants to buy products that don’t meet their ethical standards. But choice is a loaded word. It means there’s another option, one which you can afford, and which you have enough information to make. But when it comes to almost anything you buy or consume, that information either doesn’t exist, or is incredibly difficult to access.

Behind the decisions we make is the issue of incentives. Right now, those producing products unethically, harming the environment or using bad labor practices, for example, are doing so because it’s cheaper for them. The consequences of unethical production are higher profits. It’s easy for them to hide in the complexity of supply chains, safe in the knowledge that in the supermarket it’s often difficult to distinguish between a fish caught sustainably and another caught in an over-fished area. If it was always easy to tell the difference, we’d all choose the sustainably caught fish, and our unethical fishing vessel would feel the consequences of bad practices in their wallet.

We believe that technology can enable us to truly realign these incentives. It’s said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and technology can help us to create the unprecedented levels of transparency that we need as consumers to make the choices which align with our values.

My team is on a journey to building the technology required to make this possible. We’ve been working with the world’s largest conservation organisation, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) to launch a company called “OpenSC” (where “SC” stands for “supply chains”) in order to give consumers the information they need about the products they buy.

We work with large companies to do three things. Firstly, we verify how a product is produced in an automated and data-based way, gathering data such as satellite imagery, on the ground IoT sensor data, live video monitoring and worker biometric data and processing it to verify specific sustainability and ethical production claims.

When compared with today’s approaches to certifying sustainable production, these types of technologies enable a step-change improvement on three dimensions: they enable us to collect data for each individual product rather than spot checks for large batches; they provide automated sensed data rather than fraud and failure prone manual audits; and they move away from binary classifications of products as “sustainable” or not, and empower a more nuanced examination of specific claims about sustainable and ethical production.

Through this verification we create value, and preserving that value requires our second step: tracing products throughout their supply chains. We use a wide range of different technologies for all of this, including blockchain. The use of decentralised technology can bring many advantages to all of this, and has the promise for many more in the future. It is already particularly helpful in mitigating trust issues.

Finally, we need to create ways to share this information with end consumers across a range of channels so that they can see all the data we’ve collected, where their products were made, by whom, how they were transported, or other relevant details.

To take one example, we’ve been working with a subsidiary of the world’s largest seafood company to verify, trace, and then share the relevant details consumers need to trust that their Patagonian Toothfish (also known as Chilean Seabass) was caught in an area where it is sustainable to do so. You can read the case study here. We believe that there are opportunities to develop these types of solutions for all physical products and their supply chains, from food to clothes to industrial goods.

Now, as an individual consumer, all of this might sound like a huge burden — you don’t have time to look at all of this information every time you buy something. And I don’t expect you to. Because you will have help with that! In the future you will increasingly leave the decision of which specific product to buy up to machines. Algorithms will know enough about you to make those decisions for you, taking away the burden. Maybe they will even do a better job at it.

In a recent study, 85% of those that had bought products through a virtual assistant, said that on occasion they had gone with their virtual assistant’s top product recommendation rather than the specific brand they set out to buy. You just say you need toilet paper and it’s an algorithm that then decides which brand, price-point, and whether you are going with recycled or not.

Today, that’s usually based on what you’ve bought before, or whoever pays the most to the assistant. But why shouldn’t it be also based on your values? Knowing that you want to buy planet-friendly, and knowing whether — and how much — you are willing and able to pay for that.

So that will make it easy and seamless to choose the right products while still maintaining a commitment to granular facts and data. Maybe this won’t come directly from you, but by allowing an algorithm — one that’s never time-poor or exhausted, or distracted by a date, and that knows how much you care about this planet and the people living on it — to look at all that information for you, and to decide for you.

When you have reliable, trustworthy data and the right technological solutions to make use of it, consumers will act on the facts and support sustainable and ethical producers, processors, and retailers. The good guys will get rewarded, and the bad actors will be forced either to adjust or get out of business entirely.

As Greta reminded us yesterday, facts and transparency are of the utmost importance; an integral part of creating a world in which every product meets humanity’s ethical standard, and the foundation for solving humanity and the planet’s biggest problems.

OpenSC was built as a joint venture between BCG Digital Ventures and WWF.

View Markus Mutz’s full TED talk here.

For more on OpenSC, visit the website.

Read the OpenSC Patagonian Toothfish/Chilean Seabass case study.

For more on BCGDV, visit the website.

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