The Provenance alpha: building trust from transparency

The Co-op is committed to being radically transparent. A decade ahead of the government’s traffic light system, we campaigned for food and nutrition labelling that’s clear and easy to understand.

Being transparent still matters. But how do we make sure the Co-op stays ahead of the curve when it comes to building trust from transparency in the digital age?

For the past 12 weeks, my team has been working on a proof of concept we called the Provenance alpha. Provenance is a start-up that uses blockchain technology to make supply chains more transparent. A blockchain is a public, tamper-proof record of transactions which is maintained and verified by a network of co-operating computers (rather than by a central authority like a bank).

The Provenance alpha was a joint effort between Co-op Digital and Provenance to see if we could use their technology without having to add extra steps to our supply chain.

Starting with gladioli

Our small team (myself, interaction designer Jack, and the team from Provenance) tracked gladioli through our supply chain, from source to shelf. We learnt a lot in the process. We worked on this project in the same way that we develop software – by building something doable as a basis for scaling up.

We looked at the supply chains of 4 different products to begin with but we picked gladioli because they’re a relatively neutral product but still perishable. Gladioli are farmed locally in the UK and move from source to shelf in 2 to 5 days. Their supply chain has enough steps to be interesting, but is small enough for a proof of concept.

Working with what’s already there

We wanted to move quickly, which meant steering clear of changing existing processes in the supply chain. Adding any new technology for tracking and verification purposes would be expensive to scale, so we avoided doing that. To keep us on track, we decided on some principles for our work. 

  1. Tracking should be as close to real time as possible.
  2. No manipulation of existing supply chain processes.
  3. Use existing systems and verifiable data.

We connected to existing systems such as our suppliers’ sales and invoice software and our warehouse management system at our depot. This let us collect data about where the flowers had come from and where they’d go next. It also let us track unique batches in real time.

Links in the chain

All the suppliers in the supply chain gave us access to systems that we could extract data from. This data included evidence of environmental and welfare standards. We then linked these together using Provenance’s software to verify the batch of gladioli at each step in the chain.
image of 4 phone screens showing what the Provenance app looks like at various stages of the gladiolo supply chain as well as data collected along the way

We started off by meeting with the gladioli farmer, Matthew Naylor to find the number of flowers cropped in the field each day. This information is usually recorded on paper, however Matthew used his smartphone to log the daily cropping figures with the Provenance system.

Naylor shows the Provenance software on his phone to the team

Next, we met with our flower supplier, JZ Flowers. They supply the Co-op with British gladioli and work with Matthew and the Co-op’s flowers product manager, Kathryn Camps, to develop our flower range. The information we collected about the production process is in the Provenance app. At this point we used order, sales and invoicing data to verify the batches that were sent to our depot. Then, at the depot we used our warehouse management systems to track the gladioli batches through to the store shelf at the Archway Co-op.

photo of gladioli in Co-op Archway store with hand holding a phone with Provenance app in front of the bunch

Thinking about data

Our progress has given us the confidence that, despite the many challenges of scaling, this idea is something that’s worth looking into further. It’s also made us think about the wealth of data we could collect. It could be possible to collect information on:

  • nutrition
  • allergens
  • ingredients
  • origin and food miles
  • sustainability information, for example CO2 emissions
  • welfare
  • price per unit

All of this data already exists but within ‘data silos’ across different systems, organisations and processes. We’re thinking about how we could collect it, standardise it and make it open and accessible to teams. If we could, it’d be possible for teams to build products and services that help our members and customers understand their food better. It would also help colleagues be more informed. Of course, this would be a huge project because the Co-op sells so many products and often introduces new ones.

Our small team completed the Provenance alpha quickly, partly because we didn’t interfere with existing systems. For a proof of concept, that was very important.

Our next step will be to find out if there’s a user need for a ‘digital right to know’ for our products. We’d be interested to hear if it’s something you’d care about, and to what extent. Leave a comment below.

Lawrence Kitson
Product manager