The inevitability of traceability

June 28, 2013

Consumers are demanding traceability in the supply chain, says Stuart Singleton-White, but companies can reduce their costs and still ensure sustainability.

Supply chains, they can be complex tricky things, invisible when they work and a nightmare when they don’t!  Many of your best sustainability intentions can get lost along the chain as raw materials get processed and transformed into products on their journey from beginning to end.

Understanding the journey products take through your supply chain is key to being able to present clear and transparent information to your customers and the consumer; both of whom are becoming increasingly demanding in terms of the sustainability performance of your product or service and in relation to its provenance and origin. Where did this come from?  How was it grown?  Did the famer get a good deal? Were the workers looked after?  Did they get a good wage?  Were children involved?  Has its production trashed the planet?

Are you actually close enough to your suppliers and producers to confidently know the answer to these questions? How can you find out?  How can you manage your risk?  And let’s be clear, as anyone who has been involved or merely followed the recent horse meat scandal will tell you, those risks are immense and ever present.

Traceability is key if you are to have any idea of the process; from the practices taking place on the farm or in the forest, the Rainforest Alliance insists on traceability being maintained along the supply chain, providing on the one hand increased value to producers selling certified products, and on the other, reassurance to consumers on the origin and sustainability claims of those products. This doesn’t mean you have to track back all the way through your supply chain to the actual farm that grew your product – though many companies are doing exactly that with varying levels of complexity and cost, depending on the chain in question.

Traceability can also be a requirement of the certification scheme itself. Through a system of transaction certificates validating each stage of the supply chain, a commodity passes through each link and receives a certificate to demonstrate the source it came from. That link in the chain then has to keep it separate from non-certified commodities as it passes it onto the next link. As it’s passed on up those links so the certificate of authenticity passes up with it, until finally it arrives with the end user.

This is a complex and burdensome process which, with the help of new technologies, is being streamlined and made more reliable. Is it worth it? Yes: the reassurance that the commodities in the finished product have what it says on the tin requires record keeping, transparency and traceability. What is more, it’s not just the brand or manufacture keeping the records, but the certification body accrediting the good practices on the ground too. Therefore, if you want to use the fact the content of your product is certified and inform your customers or consumers of the benefits of certification, a third party certification system such as the Rainforest Alliance is able to verify this information by checking the transaction certificates.

You could also look to shorten and simplify your supply chain. You could get as close to the farmer as you can, forging direct relationships, or establishing control systems to promote good practices, knowing what he or she is doing and how he or she farms in a sustainable way. These are all vital elements of embedding sustainability into your supply chain. This doesn’t replace the need for traceability, but can make a huge difference to everyone involved in bringing a product to market, from the farmer to the consumer.

Stuart Singleton-White is Senior Manager, External Communications (Europe & Australia) at Rainforest Alliance