Nina is CRO for Akerna. Getty Over the past two decades, the "conscious consumer" has demanded an important role as influencer and revenue driver for
Nina is CRO for Akerna.
Over the past two decades, the “conscious consumer” has demanded an important role as influencer and revenue driver for businesses as diverse as food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, consumer packaged goods and outdoor gear. They purchase socially responsible products and services, practice green behaviors and are philanthropic through contributions of time and money.
Newer behaviors signal additional demands on brands to provide greater levels of verifiable information about everything an individual physically consumes (in or on their body) — from the origination of ingredients, to their journey across multiple companies and geographies, to their manufacturing processes and distribution destinations. These new mandates present both a business challenge and brand differentiation opportunity based around the transparency and accessibility of the supply chain.
This conscious consumer does not live in a bubble — they now live in a pandemic-aware world. COVID-19 is proving to be the kind of unpredictable and severe black swan event that undeniably exposes the shortcomings and vulnerabilities in the global supply chains of many industries that, in hindsight, might appear obvious. Supply chains have failed the resilience and transparency tests.
A unique liminal moment (i.e., an opportunity for radical change) is vibrantly alive at the intersection of these two powerful but diametrically opposed phenomena: the rise of the power of the conscious consumer and the quest for information in a new pandemic-aware world.
Rather than being overwhelmed into inaction, businesses must embrace the opportunity to accelerate change in their supply chains to address both challenges. Technology, along with changing attitudes and policies, will play a central role in a movement to unprecedented levels of resilience, transparency and accessibility.
Transforming The Outdated Supply Chain Into A New Information ‘Demand’ Chain
In order to act on this opportunity for change, companies need to invest in technologies and practices that will uncover supply chain details by monitoring interactions with global suppliers 24/7 and provide on-demand and uncensored product and ingredient data for customers. For the conscious consumer or those looking to avoid “fake” products and dubiously sourced or tampered ingredients, trust, self-verification and the assurance of the accuracy of supply chain information can only be guaranteed by providing direct access to data in a useful and understandable form.
The next-generation supply chain must be fully digital. What were once rigid product supply chains may well transform into dynamic demand chains that deliver the transparency and resilience needed for both businesses and consumers who demand to retrieve relevant information from any point and time.
Technology’s Role In Solving The Challenge Of Supply Chain Transparency And Resilience
Driven by data, a more resilient and transparent supply chain will need a technology stack that includes advances in:
• Tag and trace tools
• Dynamic databases
• Analytics that use AI and machine learning
• User experience design
Tag And Trace
Tag and trace relates to both the logistics and process of determining the location and distribution journey of products and their ingredients. It is the fundamental building block of automatic authentication through a chain of custody.
The tagging of detailed information at each touchpoint needs to be automatically added to a master record to avoid human error and leave behind the shortcomings of paper-based systems. This data stream will be generated by harvesting, testing and robotic technologies in fields, labs, kitchens, manufacturing facilities and warehouses. To associate physical objects with their chain of data, there will be experiments with a variety of technologies, including sensors, RFID tags, barcodes, quasars, biomarkers, holograms and nanotags.
The detailed information generated at each step of this new supply chain needs to exist in a flexible, living database that can travel with all product components to the final destination in a consumer’s hands. Its characteristics will need to include:
• Near real-time updates and access
• Reliability through design that does not allow for a single point of failure
• Scalability to support growth as new inputs and access demands are made
• Transparency achieved by balancing customer access and trust and the need to protect trade secrets
Analytics, AI And Machine Learning
AI and machine learning will unify data points and provide insights relevant to both a business’s data scientists and customers. For businesses, AI could recommend automated recalls of tainted products or changes in plans based on forecasts of customer demand several months down the road. For conscious consumers, an on-demand analysis of a product’s ingredients and practices could be generated by mapping data against an individual’s personal values.
Rethinking security will be critical if businesses are to provide accessibility across multiple constituencies with whom they still need to develop trust. New security principles, tamper-resistant encryption and management of multiple dynamic permission levels will be required. Security systems will need to thwart attempts to make any after-the-fact changes to the records of origin and journey of each asset and ingredient.
Data Access And User Experience
Data, analysis and security measures have no value if different users cannot access information in a way that is meaningful to them. Operational managers, data scientists and customers all have specific, need-to-know form and delivery requirements. The technology that will deliver these capabilities will need to be interoperable, with APIs that enable integration across platforms and systems. Visually oriented applications will be a new part of the technology stack that can surface the highest-level information or dig deep into data to investigate the entire chain of custody.
The journey to a new, fully digital supply chain that meets the transparency, accessibility and resiliency demands of today has many technology, user-experience and policy challenges. While this may appear daunting, a radical evolution is no longer an option; rather, it is a requirement for addressing the demands of powerful conscious consumers and the realities of a pandemic-aware world.
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