The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Leanne Kemp, CEO and founder of Everledger, a company headquartered in London that develops technology to create a secure and permanent digital record of an asset’s origin, characteristics, and ownership. Kemp discussed how blockchain solutions are helping bring transparency in supply chains for more conscious consumers and spoke about the impact COVID-19 has had on diamond supply chains.
Hodan Omaar: How are traditional institutions using blockchain to rethink their trust facilitating models and what is causing this shift?
Leanne Kemp: There are major shifts occurring in conscious consumerism that is causing the rethinking of trust. For example, consider simple questions such as, “Where does this diamond on my finger come from?” or “Where does the food I’m eating for breakfast come from?” These questions are increasingly plaguing the minds of people across generations. To address these questions we, at Everledger, use a symphony of technologies including blockchain, AI, and IoT, to marry the identity of an object and the construction of events across a supply chain.
More importantly, there is also the race to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and time is ticking fast. As we continue to realize climate emergencies, the combination of these technologies can help corporations, consumers, and governments collect data and report on supply chain impact both to people and the planet more generally.
Omaar: A consumer might care more about where their diamonds come from than where their wine comes from. Or when building trust, a supplier in the food industry may need to provide more transparency than one in the clothing industry. Do you find that demands for traceability differ across sectors?
Kemp: Not necessarily. I think a lot of people are asking very similar questions of themselves and of their involvement in the wider community. There are certainly different economic drivers that exist between the diamond industry, the wine industry, and even the circular economy which is aimed at the continual use of resources, but in all of these industries consumers are demanding answers to the impact on people who handle the materials within a supply chain and the environment now.
Consider the diamond supply chain. There are a few major shifts that are signaling the importance of technologies like Everledger, the application of traceability, and the gathering of data so that we can really see and understand the asset itself, the global trade flows, and the supply chain risk associated with it. When we think about those major shifts, it is consumer sentiment driving these changes by asking the question “Where does it come from?” In the case of diamonds it may even be due to the success of films such as Blood Diamond that still sit in the minds of many consumers.
Creating more transparency in the supply chain also helps us better compare different manufacturing techniques, and in some industries even the different types of assets. For instance, we have a number of man-made diamonds that are now being manufactured in the world and produced as gem-quality standards. There have been claims that man-made diamonds are far better for the planet than natural stones because the effects of manufacturing does not destroy nature’s land or oceans. But when you dig beneath the manufacturing effects that man-made diamonds are having inside industrialized centers, it becomes apparent that perhaps this is shortsighted. The majority of man-made suppliers are not using solar panels to power these great machines nor are they recycling water, so one could argue that the cost to manufacture man-made diamonds has even more of a significant impact on the planet then natural stones do, where suppliers are able to regenerate the land. In fact, many large scale mining companies work with governments, indigenous groups, and local communities to plan the end of operations in a way that leaves lasting benefits for host communities and look for ways to optimize decommissioning, remediation, and long-term management obligations such as water treatment.
Ultimately, regardless of whether we are discussing a diamond that costs in the tens of thousands of dollars or a bottle of wine that is in the single digit dollars, the underlying concerns all lead to transparency, trust, and traceability.
Omaar: Initial excitement about using blockchain technology for supply chain due diligence presented this technology as a panacea for many of the challenges facing businesses in their efforts to identify and address supply chain risks, such as human rights abuses. What are the real world successes you have seen and what can blockchain not address?
Kemp: There are many things that blockchain cannot address and I cannot speak to all of those, but what I can speak to is the work that we are doing around identifying an object, identifying the supply chain where participants are known, and enabling the connection of the object and the people through the transformation events across the supply chain. One success I have seen through this process is the ability to provide provenance data that facilitates ethical crossroads and fair work practices and trades.
For example, the diamond cutting industry is concentrated in Surat, India where diamond cutting has traditionally been a male dominated field. But diamond polishers in this region have not only been responding to the clear market demand for transparency around the sourcing of precious stones, but have been ensuring women are a part of this highly sought after professional pathway. The concept here is that the dignity of each human grants them certain rights regardless of who they are or where they were born. This idea, that rights apply to everyone everywhere, is known as the principle of universality. Philosophically, human rights are based on fundamental principles, themselves derived from dignity. These include accountability; participation and inclusion; universality, equality, and non-discrimination; and inalienability and indivisibility.
Omaar: Using blockchain to improve transparency and traceability throughout the whole value chain requires considerable cross-sectoral and cross-border collaboration. Is there a role for the government to help cross-border collaboration, say in interoperability or standardization, that could help encourage innovation?
Kemp: The short answer to the question is yes indeed. Many of the problems we see are not even about blockchain governance but more about sovereignty and the nationalization of data. Enabling better ways to create data trust is a prime example. In many countries around the world there is safe harbouring of data and impediments to data exchange. There is already an existing set of initiatives that are well underway to address these issues in the blockchain industry, such as the creation of international standards that look at interoperability and data taxonomies. A number of these pieces of work are not necessarily embodied directly in government, but I think governments are addressing these issues by creating nationalized services around data. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, we have seen the importance of enabling cross-border data-sharing and I think the pandemic is likely going to be the most important economic driver for governments to take a look at these issues more deeply than ever before.
Omaar: What impacts has the pandemic had on the diamond supply chain in particular and what lessons can we learn from it?
What we have seen in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic is that 95 percent of the physical supply chain in the diamond industry collapsed and disappeared overnight, as did many other supply chains. The reality is, diamonds only exist in certain countries around the world; it is not as though you can quickly pop up a manufacturing outlet in a country that has never been involved in the diamond industry before. Because diamonds were not able to move across borders and there was a huge collapse in the air freight industry, which is how most diamonds are transported, the luxury cargo industry has also collapsed.
In other supply chains, such as those in the circular economy, we are seeing countries create entirely new supply chains overnight and endeavour upon new forms of material science to replace a supply chain that was previously reliant upon the natural resources industry digging a hole in certain part of the earth that maybe difficult to gain access to now. Rethinking the materials within a supply chain has probably been the lesson that COVID has delivered to the industry. Moreover, the circular economy can act as an instrument to decouple economic growth from resource use and environmental impact, opening up the way for resilient recovery. It not only addresses the negative impacts of the linear economy, but more importantly it represents a systemic shift towards building long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.