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    Transparency & Tracebility
    Transparency & Tracebility
    Words by Neil Pearston
    Illustrations by Jack Fletcher
    It's time to change the way we think about cost. Cost is much more than money: cost is labour exploitative, pollution belching, tax evasive. I don't know how much my phone, my trainers, my holidays really cost. When you next go to buy a phone, think about the kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted in its production. When you get a cheap disposable toothbrush, consider the amount of plastic wasted in its production. A new development in data storage called blockchain could provide the means for doing so. Why not make a choice based on the history of an item rather than just its future? In the present day, much of what we create is digital, a new medium which has allowed us to create and share information on an unprecedented scale. We create as much information in two days as we did between the dawn of civilisation and 2003. In 1986, we consumed an average of 40 newspapers worth of information a day. By 2007 that figure stood at 174. Ten years later, it is higher still... Yet we are often misinformed or unable to make the decisions we want to, because the correct information is not available at the right time – it is tucked away in servers we cannot use, in record systems we cannot access, or lost in the noise of modern life. We can see more but we cannot always see clearly. This presents a challenge to the consumer, frequently misled by those with a vested interest. The consumer who thinks they're buying beef and get sold horsemeat. Those who wear clothes adorned in 'faux' fur which contain dog pelts. Those who thought themselves environmentally responsible by buying diesel cars, were not. These scandals serve to highlight the unscrupulous nature of capitalism, where the incentive for cutting corners outweighs the reputational risk of being exposed. Volkswagen still sells cars and Tesco still sells beef, and both show little sign of stopping anytime soon. And so we come to blockchain, a means of recording and storing digital information. In a blockchain, the information you are recording is grouped together and stored in timestamped blocks. Each block contains a reference to the block immediately preceding it in the chain. In a very simplified way, the end product is like a psychedelic graphic where an image is replicated inside itself time and time again. Imagine a picture of a woman holding a large picture frame, inside which is the same image repeated. Inside that picture frame is a picture of her holding the same picture frame and so on until we reach the end of the chain of images. In order to convincingly edit the final image, you would have to edit each image inside each picture frame – otherwise any alterations to the latest picture would be immediately obvious upon inspection of our chain of images. This feature ensures the integrity of the information contained in each block, meaning we have a digital record of information that we can have almost complete confidence in. It promises both to keep digital information secure from tampering and to increase transparency in networks that create and store data. These features may not sound particu- larly revolutionary, but they are a potent combination, which could prevent the exploitation of both workers and consumers and help us to protect the planet in years to come. The other feature of blockchain is called distributed ledger technology. A ledger is a collection of recorded information – the chain of blocks is a ledger, as is our photograph of the woman holding her own photograph. A distributed ledger system ensures that everyone in the network has a complete copy of the ledger. So, when a new block of information is created, it is added to everyone's ledger at precisely the same time and only when each node in the network agrees on the contents of the block. This creates transparency across the system. The era of free trade in which we live has clearly and measurably benefited hundreds of millions of people, but in many instances the profits from trade have not been distributed fairly. The poorest workers may not have been given the rights we take for granted. Wages and opportunities have not increased as trade has. In Scotland, there have been significant losses of livelihoods in previously pivotal industries such as shipbuilding and steel manufacturing. As these jobs have been lost, so too has identity and the comfort of control over fate. Consumerism has played a leading role in this. We buy cheap products from across the globe and fail to acknowledge the consequences of our decisions. Price reigns supreme. It can be hard to make these educated choices because, as consumers, we rarely get the chance to be truly informed in our decision-making. Much of this is due to the difficulties involved in gathering all this information ourselves. As a result, we place trust in industry bodies and regulators to enforce standards on our behalf. And as a result of these organisations and other awareness-raising efforts, consumers and businesses are beginning to change. A new digital start-up, Provenance, can conceive of a world where answers to these new kind of questions would be available with digital software.
    It's time to change the way we think about cost. Cost is much more than money: cost is labour exploitative, pollution belching, tax evasive. I don't know how much my phone, my trainers, my holidays really cost. When you next go to buy a phone, think about the kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted in its production. When you get a cheap disposable toothbrush, consider the amount of plastic wasted in its production. A new development in data storage called blockchain could provide the means for doing so. Why not make a choice based on the history of an item rather than just its future? In the present day, much of what we create is digital, a new medium which has allowed us to create and share information on an unprecedented scale. We create as much information in two days as we did between the dawn of civilisation and 2003. In 1986, we consumed an average of 40 newspapers worth of information a day. By 2007 that figure stood at 174. Ten years later, it is higher still... Yet we are often misinformed or unable to make the decisions we want to, because the correct information is not available at the right time – it is tucked away in servers we cannot use, in record systems we cannot access, or lost in the noise of modern life. We can see more but we cannot always see clearly. This presents a challenge to the consumer, frequently misled by those with a vested interest. The consumer who thinks they're buying beef and get sold horsemeat. Those who wear clothes adorned in 'faux' fur which contain dog pelts. Those who thought themselves environmentally responsible by buying diesel cars, were not. These scandals serve to highlight the unscrupulous nature of capitalism, where the incentive for cutting corners outweighs the reputational risk of being exposed. Volkswagen still sells cars and Tesco still sells beef, and both show little sign of stopping anytime soon. And so we come to blockchain, a means of recording and storing digital information. In a blockchain, the information you are recording is grouped together and stored in timestamped blocks. Each block contains a reference to the block immediately preceding it in the chain. In a very simplified way, the end product is like a psychedelic graphic where an image is replicated inside itself time and time again. Imagine a picture of a woman holding a large picture frame, inside which is the same image repeated. Inside that picture frame is a picture of her holding the same picture frame and so on until we reach the end of the chain of images.

    In order to convincingly edit the final image, you would have to edit each image inside each picture frame – otherwise any alterations to the latest picture would be immediately obvious upon inspection of our chain of images. This feature ensures the integrity of the information contained in each block, meaning we have a digital record of information that we can have almost complete confidence in. It promises both to keep digital information secure from tampering and to increase transparency in networks that create and store data. These features may not sound particu- larly revolutionary, but they are a potent combination, which could prevent the exploitation of both workers and consumers and help us to protect the planet in years to come. The other feature of blockchain is called distributed ledger technology. A ledger is a collection of recorded information – the chain of blocks is a ledger, as is our photograph of the woman holding her own photograph. A distributed ledger system ensures that everyone in the network has a complete copy of the ledger. So, when a new block of information is created, it is added to everyone's ledger at precisely the same time and only when each node in the network agrees on the contents of the block. This creates transparency across the system. The era of free trade in which we live has clearly and measurably benefited hundreds of millions of people, but in many instances the profits from trade have not been distributed fairly. The poorest workers may not have been given the rights we take for granted. Wages and opportunities have not increased as trade has. In Scotland, there have been significant losses of livelihoods in previously pivotal industries such as shipbuilding and steel manufacturing. As these jobs have been lost, so too has identity and the comfort of control over fate. Consumerism has played a leading role in this. We buy cheap products from across the globe and fail to acknowledge the consequences of our decisions. Price reigns supreme. It can be hard to make these educated choices because, as consumers, we rarely get the chance to be truly informed in our decision-making. Much of this is due to the difficulties involved in gathering all this information ourselves. As a result, we place trust in industry bodies and regulators to enforce standards on our behalf. And as a result of these organisations and other awareness-raising efforts, consumers and businesses are beginning to change. A new digital start-up, Provenance, can conceive of a world where answers to these new kind of questions would be available with digital software.
    When you next go to buy a phone, think about the kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted in its production. When you get a cheap disposable toothbrush, consider the amount of plastic wasted in its production.
    When you next go to buy a phone, think about the kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted in its production. When you get a cheap disposable toothbrush, consider the amount of plastic wasted in its production.
    Such a service would allow you to call up all sorts of information regarding the manufacture and supply of that item. The wider system of manufacture, assembly and distribution has hidden water usage, fossil fuel consumption and resource exploitation. In their vision of the future 'every physical product comes with a digital “passport" proving its authenticity and origin'. This information is made available because of a blockchain with details from right across the supply chain which means, we are able to have absolute confidence in our spending. There is a compelling case for this type of transparency in Scottish manufacturing. Consider whisky distillation. The quality and appeal of the final product is entirely a consequence of the materials and process that go into its production. Having an indelible and accessible record of this information available at the point of consumption would be extremely significant for helping to distinguish remarkable Scottish brands both in the UK and overseas. The price of a product is often all we have, when we have to choose what we buy. It is universally understood and easy to compare. But the price on the shelf is never the true cost of that product. An app that could synthesise the information on the blockchain into a useful tool for consumers could give us another metric for deciding how we spend our money. Scotland has a rich history of manufacturing influential and desirable products – this publication is an ode to that past and a celebration of the present. In the future, Scottish exports of fine fabrics, of distinguished whisky and of farmed salmon could be benefited by entrusting every consumer with the facts of their production; believing that the superior quality, care and responsibility of Scottish manufacturers will make them stand out on the shelves above cheaper alternatives. In such a future both the consumer and the producer will benefit, indeed so too will the environment. Blockchain is still in its infancy and its uses to date have been limited. A fully transparent supply chain based on the ideas explored above is not yet feasible. It is noted that there are significant points of contention with this system. For instance vast quantities of energy are required to maintain the blockchain; a serious problem. Getting stakeholders from across the supply chain to buy into the system would take years of negotiating. Providing the information recorded on it to consumers in a digestible format would be similarly challenging, but with initiatives like Provenance we have a chance. The potential here is significant and the principles it maintains are worthy of pursuit. Today, I buy one item over another because of price. This technology simply provides another point of comparison for me to use. There is good evidence that consumers are open to this type of development. Take for instance, the Bank of Åland, headquartered on the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. They were motivated by the Baltic Sea dying around them to offer a credit card that tells you the carbon emissions produced by each item you purchase. All four million of their customers are now signed up and they are pushing the idea to other banks in the region. The problems that technology can solve continue to exist wherever there is a profit motive. In June this year the Guardian reported that Waitrose corned beef was being withdrawn from the shelves. It alleged that the farm in Brazil where the cattle were raised was using slave labour. The dark spaces where we cannot or choose not to look are rife with exploitation. We now have the means to stop this. In doing so we can make the world a better place, make consumption a positive choice and perhaps boost the appeal of Scottish produce. How much does it cost? I want to know.
    Such a service would allow you to call up all sorts of information regarding the manufacture and supply of that item. The wider system of manufacture, assembly and distribution has hidden water usage, fossil fuel consumption and resource exploitation. In their vision of the future 'every physical product comes with a digital “passport" proving its authenticity and origin'. This information is made available because of a blockchain with details from right across the supply chain which means, we are able to have absolute confidence in our spending. There is a compelling case for this type of transparency in Scottish manufacturing. Consider whisky distillation. The quality and appeal of the final product is entirely a consequence of the materials and process that go into its production. Having an indelible and accessible record of this information available at the point of consumption would be extremely significant for helping to distinguish remarkable Scottish brands both in the UK and overseas. The price of a product is often all we have, when we have to choose what we buy. It is universally understood and easy to compare. But the price on the shelf is never the true cost of that product. An app that could synthesise the information on the blockchain into a useful tool for consumers could give us another metric for deciding how we spend our money. Scotland has a rich history of manufacturing influential and desirable products – this publication is an ode to that past and a celebration of the present. In the future, Scottish exports of fine fabrics, of distinguished whisky and of farmed salmon could be benefited by entrusting every consumer with the facts of their production; believing that the superior quality, care and responsibility of Scottish manufacturers will make them stand out on the shelves above cheaper alternatives. In such a future both the consumer and the producer will benefit, indeed so too will the environment. Blockchain is still in its infancy and its uses to date have been limited. A fully transparent supply chain based on the ideas explored above is not yet feasible. It is noted that there are significant points of contention with this system. For instance vast quantities of energy are required to maintain the blockchain; a serious problem. Getting stakeholders from across the supply chain to buy into the system would take years of negotiating. Providing the information recorded on it to consumers in a digestible format would be similarly challenging, but with initiatives like Provenance we have a chance. The potential here is significant and the principles it maintains are worthy of pursuit. Today, I buy one item over another because of price. This technology simply provides another point of comparison for me to use. There is good evidence that consumers are open to this type of development. Take for instance, the Bank of Åland, headquartered on the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. They were motivated by the Baltic Sea dying around them to offer a credit card that tells you the carbon emissions produced by each item you purchase. All four million of their customers are now signed up and they are pushing the idea to other banks in the region. The problems that technology can solve continue to exist wherever there is a profit motive. In June this year the Guardian reported that Waitrose corned beef was being withdrawn from the shelves. It alleged that the farm in Brazil where the cattle were raised was using slave labour. The dark spaces where we cannot or choose not to look are rife with exploitation. We now have the means to stop this. In doing so we can make the world a better place, make consumption a positive choice and perhaps boost the appeal of Scottish produce. How much does it cost? I want to know.
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