Blog Articles

By - Brian Iselin

Published : 17-06-2018

Blockchain: How it is our Game-Changer for Tackling Slavery in Supply Chains

Slavefreetrade is the first non-profit in the world to use blockchain to tackle slavery head-on. We are building a range of interconnected, decentralised applications (unfortunately known as dapps) to help us achieve our mission.

The bow in our artificial intelligence quiver is our end-to-end supply chain product provenance tracking dapp, built on the Ethereum blockchain. The related arrows in our quiver include dapps for digital identity, consumer information, retail and business connections, finding suppliers, verification processes and more.

Let’s be clear; blockchain is a game-changer for supply chains. And a game-changer for those of us interested in attacking the 80-90% of modern slavery that occurs in the private sector. From conducting payment and audits to tracking inventory and assets, blockchain technology enables greater supply chain transparency and efficiency than ever before.

And slavefreetrade harnesses those efficiencies and new-found transparency to end slavery in supply chains. We can do this because of a technology known as smart contracts.

Without going overboard with techie terms like smart contracts, though, the aim of this article is to quite simply explain blockchain, and how it revolutionises supply chains and anti-slavery.

So, without wanting to overdo it, let’s start by saying that blockchain is now what the internet was to us in about 1994. As Bill Gates said haphazardly at that time; “The Internet? Yeah, that is pretty hip right now”.

One of the funny things about blockchain is trying to explain it simply; you invariably have to digress into descriptions that are not technically even correct to be able to convey it. But let’s try.

And so, let’s take those digressions and look at the basics of the tech, and then we can talk about how major the shift is for us in combating slavery in supply chains.

The easiest way to think about blockchain is as a distributed ‘database’ (even though it is technically not that at all) that holds records of digital data or events in a way that makes them tamper-resistant. While many users may access, inspect, or add to the data, they can’t change or delete it. The original information stays put, leaving a permanent and public information trail (hence chain) of transactions.

I read a great metaphor for it; if the entire blockchain were the history of banking transactions, an individual bank statement would be a single “block” in the chain.

Unlike most banking systems, however, there is no single organisation that controls these transactions. It can be used to record, track, and verify trades of virtually anything that holds value and can only be updated through consensus (which is why you will often come across this concept of ‘consensus’ again and again in the blockchain literature) of a majority of participants in the system.

The building block of the blockchain is called a ‘smart contract’. A smart contract is computer code hosted on a blockchain that defines and executes the terms of an agreement between parties. With stunning versatility, the range of potential applications in the supply chain domain is truly only limited by the imagination; exactly what makes this a revolution.

Smart contracts offer many benefits which include verification, visibility, lower costs, self-execution, clarity of agreement terms, fraud protection and connectivity. All great for business, right? And all great for those of us who want to use transparency to discover and undermine wrong-doing.

In short, blockchain is a record-keeping mechanism that makes it easier and safer for businesses to work together over the internet.

The best-known application of blockchain technology is Bitcoin, a currency dapp. But Bitcoin is really not at all representative of the blockchain technology at all any more.

The blockchain protocol can be used for non-currency purposes as well. Thought it was initially intended for financial transactions, organisations of all kinds are getting creative with the blockchain ledger, as it can be used to record, track, and verify transactions of virtually anything that holds value. From ride-sharing to cloud storage to voting, to providing identity to people, organisations all over the world are beginning to see blockchain’s potential.

Some experts suggest blockchain could become a universal “supply chain operating system” before long, and the technology can work to improve the following tasks:

  • Recording the quantity and transfer of assets - like pallets, trailers, containers, etc. – as they move between supply chain nodes
  • Tracking purchase orders, change orders, receipts, shipment notifications, or other trade-related documents
  • Assigning or verifying certifications or certain properties of physical products
  • Linking physical goods to serial numbers, bar codes, digital tags like RFID, NFC etc.
  • Sharing information about the production and manufacturing processes, assembly, delivery, and maintenance of products with suppliers and vendors

Regardless of the application, blockchain offers the following advantages to slavefreetrade’s efforts to eradicate slavery in supply chains:

  1. Enhanced Transparency. Documenting a product’s journey across the supply chain reveals its true origin and touchpoints, renders transparent the locations and working conditions of those in the supply chain. This operates to increase trust within the system and helps eliminate the bias found in otherwise obfuscated and opaque supply chains.
  2. Greater Scalability. Virtually any number of participants, accessing from any number of touchpoints, is possible. A wide range of views are possible, so we can provide windows into the supply chain for manufacturers, producers, workers, consumers, suppliers, and retailers. Think of the view from a glass-bottomed boat instead of one with a solid hull. This feature also allows us to verify touchpoints in the supply chain through numerous sources, proving product provenance.
  3. Immutable Records. A shared, indelible ledger is created with codified rules that over time eliminates the audits required by internal systems and processes. Picture a written system where nobody can create fraudulent versions of a record.
  4. Increased Innovation. Opportunities abound to create new, specialised uses for the technology as a result of the decentralized architecture. Slavefreetrade already has the blockchain supply chain dapp, and is already working with partners to develop consumer, retailer, business, verification etc applications on the blockchain.

And while, yes, blockchain is very hip right now, there are great reasons it changes the way we live and work.