Everything is traceable – unless you don't want it to be (commentary) – Mongabay.com

In a book published in 2016, Henrik Ringsberg of Chalmers University of Technology, wrote that “Product traceability to ensure quality, safety, and sustainability of goods has become a worldwide societal concern.” This statement encapsulated a widespread sentiment of the time.
Yet five years on, I can’t believe we are still having arguments about product traceability.
Traceability is a simple matter really. Consumers have the right to know where the products they buy come from, and to trace them back to the source of the raw materials to ensure that they are not linked to anything dodgy, such as deforestation and human rights violations. Consequently, brands, retailers, and manufacturers have the responsibility to provide this traceability information to consumers.
I remember sitting in a meeting room in central London eight years ago. The chief of sustainability of a major consumer goods company sat in front of me. She inhaled deeply before starting a ten-minute lecture about how difficult it was to trace the commodities she was dealing with back to their sources. “It’s impossible,” she said with an exasperated expression on her face.
That was eight years ago. Today, her organization still claims that they are not able to be fully traceable and transparent with their products.
I studied wood technology back in university, where I spent months staring at tiny wooden cells with their wild and wonderful shapes under the microscope in laboratories. What’s fascinating about the wood cells is that every wood, or plant, has a different set of cell shapes and patterns. I knew then that, to put it simply without complicating the matter further with technical details, I could identify any wood-based material and trace it back to the trees they’re from. Nature and technology provide us with the basis for traceability. It’s the same case for other materials, from furniture to textile and even palm oil.
What I studied at university was tested several times in my career in the wood pulp industry. The first time I saw mountains of wood chips piling in front of me as they spewed off tireless conveyor belts, you have no idea what went through my brain thinking about the traceability of the chips. I spent days in front of my computer crunching numbers, developing formulas to lower contamination risks, while minimizing the margins of error to an acceptable level. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t an impossible task. I then proudly presented this new traceability procedure in the mill’s meeting room, in front of a group of all-male attendees, until one insecure misogynist opened his mouth and tried to mansplain: “It’s a pulp mill miss, you can’t divide a pile of woodchips like you cut a cake in your kitchen.”
Looking back, his smug yet brief smile reminds me of the smugness that ran across the face of the chief of sustainability I met in London years later.
In a nutshell, everything is traceable. Traceability is not only about mapping supply chains and tracing the documents whenever products change shapes and hands. A good traceability system should also be verifiable and transparent, especially when the products are linked to large risks such as deforestation, environmental degradation, and human rights violations. A good traceability system must include maps of the source of the raw materials, which are published for the public to see and independently verify. The longer a company waits to achieve full traceability and transparency for its supply chains, the longer the company deliberately tolerates possible environmental and social non-compliances. Why? Possibly to reduce costs and keep their profits high since traceability and sustainability require serious commitment and investment.
And no, having your company’s chain-of-custody certified does not necessarily mean that you have full traceability.
Today, a lot of consumer goods and producer companies do not include their indirect suppliers and smallholders in their traceability systems. Companies’ excuse to not include indirect suppliers is usually that they don’t have direct commercial agreements with these indirect suppliers and thus cannot enforce the traceability or sustainability policy. I don’t buy it. I cannot recall how many legal agreements I have written in which clauses specifically mention that suppliers must comply with their buyer’s policies and must impose such policy requirements up their supply chains. This, alongside companies’ grounds for their inability to include smallholders in their traceability systems, results in a list of excuses longer than my Sainsbury’s shopping list.
For smallholders in their supply chain, we must first ask how do these companies define ‘smallholder’? Is it what I call a ‘small or medium enterprise’ with more than 50 or 100 hectares of land? Or is it as a farmer who owns land or has a long-term lease with a maximum of 10 hectares of farm holding size, lives in a village, uses the farm as their main source of income, is free to manage their land and its production, and farms based primarily on their own family labour and capital, as adopted by the Indonesian Palm Oil Smallholder Union?
If it’s the first, I don’t consider them smallholders. If it’s the latter, do you think these genuine smallholders deserve to be branded by companies as untraceable, illegal, unsustainable, lacking resources and knowledge, as well as the cause of forest degradation and fires? If so – how did these marginalized smallholders end up in this situation?
In my previous commentary piece on Mongabay, I wrote about the need for companies to change their course. Companies must begin to treat communities as equal business partners, considering the number of rights over environmental services, livelihoods from forests, rivers, and peatlands, and other values that have been taken away by companies for their large-scale operations and profits, especially in the tropics.
Smallholders do understand the importance of traceability and sustainability. Smallholders do want to improve their practices, to be treated as equal in supply chains, and to improve their livelihoods. But they cannot do it alone, especially as they aren’t left with much to begin with.
It’s 2021: The science and technology are there, the stakeholders are willing, and, according to the latest IPCC report, the planet is burning. What are the companies waiting for?
Aida Greenbury is the former Managing Director of Sustainability at APP Group, she is now based in Sydney Australia and a board member and advisor for several organizations, including Mongabay.
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