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Our Insights 29 May 2012

Emerging technologies: Opening up the value chain

By Heather Mak

Back in September, I discussed in a blog post the fact that open data was one part of a move for technology to help us become more open, collaborative, participatory, and connected. Open data is but one part of a wider suite of technologies currently being adopted for accountability in the value chain. We discussed these in a recent Engaging Stakeholders webinar featuring Leo Bonanni of Sourcemap. These technologies include RFID, apps, mobiles, and a number of different codes – alphanumeric, barcodes and QR codes. Collectively, this group of technologies has enabled traceability, assurance, capacity building, and even brand engagement.

Traceability, or having access to a complete set of information about a product and its components along the value chain, is becoming increasingly important for a number of industries such as food, timber, and extractives. A company called Helveta uses a combination of customized software, barcodes, and pictorial barcode scanners, to engage Baka pygmies on behalf of the Cameroonian government. Using these customized barcode scanners, the tribes can then identify sacred, fruit bearing, or high dependency trees, which allows the Cameroonian government to take a more nuanced approach in identifying trees which could be used for timber. The timber is then identified with the distinct barcode throughout the rest of the value chain. Another interesting technology, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), is a wireless, non-contact system that has enabled an “internet of things”, where items become part of the information system. HP uses RFID in Brazil for its old printers, where it is used to track, dismantle, and recycle all the components, helping both on costs and environment.

These technologies have also enabled assurance. From a more consumer focused level, ALDI Süd has used QR codes on its meat products, to allow consumers to scan them with a smartphone to find out information about the product’s place of origin, suppliers, and production conditions of the animals. This detail creates a level of trust with the end consumer who is interested in this information.

Capacity building in the value chain is another outcome of these technologies. In many factories in the developing world, it is often difficult to get an accurate read of factory conditions with an audit. A service called LaborLink – using mobile phones as a worker-centric platform in developing world factories – has been shown to be an effective tool. It provides workers with a simple, confidential platform to use their mobile phones to dial a local number and reply to multiple choice questions. The information is transmitted to a database for LaborLink’s partners, which are a number of large brands, to identify and solve problem areas in real time. The workers also get access to training messages from the brands.

Some of these technologies have also enabled consumers to engage with brands on sustainability. For example, Volkswagen has the ThinkBlue Challenge app, which from a sustainability point of view, allows the users to experience “eco-conscious” driving, and from a marketing perspective, allows for a test drive of the vehicle. Clorox also has its Ingredients Inside app, which allows consumers to scan products from its cleaning and disinfecting lineup, to provide greater transparency on its ingredients. Clorox’s intention was for the information to be more helpful than a label, and to provide another access point for consumer engagement on sustainability.

These technologies are but a few intriguing examples of how companies are using them to enhance accountability in their value chains. We will need companies with a dedication to transparency to lead the charge in driving usage and participation.

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