In 2019, Gartner advised that “transparency and traceability” was among their Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2020. In 2021, both transparency and traceability have their role to play in improving commercial operations and achieving sustainable development, an ambition that is rapidly moving to the top of boards’ action lists.  

You can bundle them as a technology trend, but transparency and traceability are distinct and shouldn’t be used interchangeably.  

In brief, for business in general and regarding supply-chain operations in particular, supply chain transparency is a commitment to increased communication about the provenance of products. It’s a tone of honesty and openness, and it can cover a wide range of voluntary disclosures and degrees of detail.  

Traceability provides verified, granular supply-chain tracking data that connects any individual item directly back to its sources. Traceability is one category of information that supports a policy of transparency.   

Consumers increasingly want traceability

Let’s take a look at an example. Today, consumer brands whose products contain palm oil want to tell their customers what percentage of that palm oil comes from sustainably farmed sources. 

At best today, some brands may say that 50% of the palm oil they use in their products comes from sustainable sources. Providing consumers that information is being transparent. In this example, the “50%” statistic is a bit vague, simply because palm oil is processed and sold and that much of the information is collected via assessment questionnaires. But today, it’s nearly impossible to provide any more detail than that truthfully, as the current level of information is valid at an average or aggregate level.  

But what the consumers increasingly want is traceability: A more granular set of claims that customers can trust. They want to know whether the exact item they want to buy contains palm oil sustainably sourced. They are looking to be able to trace the ingredient back to its source. In another example, it’s down to knowing what field your strawberries were picked from and potentially under what conditions of labour and with what pesticides. 

What is transparency?

Transparency is a broad approach that incorporates information and data collection, storage, calculation, validation, and sharing. It requires data from internal sources, as well as data from suppliers, third parties and audits. Often this data relies on EFs (Environmental Factors) that use generic or reference locations; how do we then know that these factors are consistent and accurate? 

Transparency in supply chains is critical not only for sustainability but increasingly for efficiency and profitability. Delays, waste and other problems in supply chains cause friction that cost time and money for every party along a supply chain, from shippers to carriers and last-mile logistics, to wholesalers and retailers.  

Transparency is a policy that says enterprises are focused on identifying issues in their supply chain, isolating hotspots, and developing improvements with their suppliers, facilities, people and products. It helps protect business and deliver on company sustainability goals. It can include things like the treatment of workers and a seller’s efforts to improve working conditions.

Traceability can reduce risk, improve quality and performance

Sustainability in the supply chain would mean that with traceability, fashion consumers could choose which garments to buy based on the health and safety standards of the factory in which the items were produced. Transparency and traceability will offer consumers more choice and companies’ greater responsibility to end tragedies like the Rana Plaza factory collapse, slave labour in the Thai seafood industry and deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia

Traceability is the granular, data-driven solution that can enable businesses to operate more efficiently and with greater control to manage sustainability commitments.   

Traceability offers enterprises the ability to verify where any particular product unit and its ingredients or parts come from. It provides a crystal-clear view of supplier performance and risk. It is a guarantee of quality and a means to execute controlled recalls in an emergency.  

At its most simple, traceability provides answers to the questions, “where did this come from, and where did it go?” It enables brands to manage their supply chain down to the individual item and helps with recalls audits, and it lowers the risk of mislabelling. Traceability data is critical in the current climate, where it applies to the vaccine supply chain, for instance.

Impact of traceability 

There are many examples of the impact that traceability can have. Salmon farmers in Norway use a Blockchain-based solution to track their product to the consumer, allowing consumers to see provenance, welfare and farming information simply by scanning the barcode. Customers at the TAPS Fishhouse and Brewery in California can scan a QR code on the menu to learn about how and when their scallops were harvested. The Thank my Farmer app connects consumers with information about their sustainably grown coffee and presents an opportunity for them to support the farmers who grew it.  

As it starts to become available at the consumer level, customers will want more. It’ll be a matter of, “if one company can tell me where their products, parts or ingredients came from, why can’t the others?” 

Is your supply chain transparent and traceable?  And are you using your supply chain data to source sustainably? 

You can find out more about IBM’s point of view on ‘The Rise of the Sustainable Enterprise’ in this report from the IBM Institute of Business Value; learn how AI, automation, data and analytics can help companies to reduce environmental impact – and boost the bottom line.

Working in partnership

The BRC Climate Action Roadmap is designed to help the UK Retail industry reach net zero by 2040. 

IBM are partnering with us on Pathway 4 of the Roadmap, focused on helping retailers to source sustainably and reduce carbon emissions across their supply chains.

To find out more about IBM and the services they provide to the retail industry, click here.

This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.