Suppose you came up with a ground-breaking consumer product with a hugely positive impact on the environment, and nobody cared?
That has long been the question with regard to attempts by companies to make their products eco-friendly. Do consumers reward such efforts with purchases and brand loyalty? Are they willing to look beyond mere convenience and low price?
Increasingly, the answer to those questions is yes. A recent survey by IBM found that 57% of consumers were willing to change their shopping habits to reduce the environmental impact of the products they buy. And while one might wish for a higher number, it’s continually on the rise, as the ramifications of global climate change become undeniable.
Having devised an innovative “green” product, the manufacturer then faces the challenge of proving it. How can the environmentally conscious consumer be sure that the item in question is what it claims to be? One answer lies in the blockchain.
Newlight Technologies, Inc. is the creator of AirCarbon, a biomaterial made out of greenhouse gases and intended as a substitute for fiber, leather and, most of all, synthetic plastic. Consisting of microorganisms and meltable into a variety of solid forms, it is carbon-negative — meaning that its production captures or destroys more carbon dioxide than was emitted to make it. AirCarbon is currently being used in accessories such as sunglasses, handbags and wallets sold by Covalent, a fashion brand launched by Newlight in September of 2020.
Newlight spend some 10 years nursing AirCarbon from idea to scaled production. But when it came to marketing the material, it needed a way to get the message out. “We noticed that in making environmental claims, there wasn’t a way for consumers to verify what we were saying,” says Mark Herrema, chief executive officer of Newlight.
Herrema soon came across blockchain technology, which creates a ledger of business transactions distributed among multiple computers, making the information both easily visible and impervious to tampering. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be the perfect solution for verifiability of environmental impact?’”
Newlight reached out to IBM, which was already well along in development of blockchains for a variety of industries. It was able to assign each of Covalent’s products a blockchain-based number that could be used to display every step in the production process, along with third-party verification of the item’s carbon impact.
A unique 12-digit number is printed in each Covalent product, showing the precise time at which AirCarbon was used in production of the item. That number is then entered into Covalent’s website, providing customers with the story of the product’s entire supply-chain journey, from initial molding to store shelf.
“Our goal was to give people the information they need to decide what kind of impact they want to make,” says Herrema. “With IBM Blockchain and LinuxONE technology, we can now provide visibility into not only the steps used to make each Covalent product, but also the carbon impact that each specific product has on the environment. For us that’s important, because it helps make tangible the unique pathway that led to the creation of that product.”
Blockchain, which began life as a means of logging transactions of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, can be used to record virtually any type of business data. But traceability, especially from the standpoint of environmental responsibility, is a prime concern of many of the companies that have embraced the technology.
IBM’s blockchain initiative works closely with a dedicated corporate environmental affairs team, according to Deborah Kestin-Schildkraut, global program director and blockchain ecosystem marketing leader with IBM. While blockchain is still relatively early in its development, she notes, it is already yielding value for companies looking to verify their efforts at environmental responsibility.
As a young company, it was important to Covalent that its blockchain be scalable. That’s made possible by cloud computing and the use of a LinuxONE machine running in the data center. “Over time, the computing access and updates to this whole network are very accessible,” says Kestin-Schildkraut.
Current successes notwithstanding, blockchain has the potential to do more. Kestin-Schildkraut says IBM is working on making the technology more interactive. “As a consumer you could register your ownership of the product onto the blockchain ledger itself, return it to us, then we make that part of the lifecycle. We see using it not just to track and trace, but also to connect people — to see where and how they use products.”
For now, IBM is focusing on perfecting the use of blockchain as a means of establishing verified supply-chain visibility. As for Newlight, it intends to roll out blockchain technology for items beyond the world of fashion, including food products.
“The big picture is, we’d love to see this expand to where people starting asking for blockchain numbers to be on all their products,” says Herrema. “We think that information is so empowering that if you can give the ability to know how much water it took to make this T-shirt, compared with another, it might impact your [purchasing] decision. We would love to see it rolled out to everyone else’s products, and we want to work with other companies to do that.”
Newlight Technologies, https://www.newlight.com
IBM Blockchain, https://www.ibm.com/blockchain
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