RSA Sustainability Network and Blockchain


Usually when I go to a sustainability event it is focussed on a specific topic or industry, but on Wednesday 7th September I attended a sustainability event with a difference. It was my first RSA Sustainability Network event held at the Fab Lab in London, and the audience was truly eclectic. I met people ranging from students and Nature-Centred Psychologists to British Petroleum and construction representatives. The crowd that attended created a very interesting dynamic compared to the usual industry specific events I attend. I found myself engaged in refreshing conversations, challenging people from different industries to engage in ways they had not previously considered.

I think the biggest thing I took away is that a lot of people are (still) frustrated with the limited rate of progress of sustainability, something Totem Sustainability wants to change, but that there are also emerging technologies that may provide exciting opportunities for our profession. Forum for the Future’s James Goodman presented on the “Future of Sustainability” and touched on one of the issues that I have personally been looking at recently: Blockchain. For those who are asking “what’s Blockchain?” I’m not going to explain it here, just Google it if you are interested, but it operates on a two key concepts:

  • Multi-user creation: large numbers of users collaborate to create an encrypted block of data and the group collectively confirm its validity.
  • Multi-user authentication: When a new block is created it is added to the previous block creating a blockchain and every user gets a new copy automatically every time a new block is added. This creates a public ledger, or record, of the transactions. If someone tries to change the information in the blockchain it can be checked against the other users blockchain records and identified.

So, could this technology be applied to sustainability issues? I think it can, and my first reaction is to think how this could apply to responsible sourcing and product transactions where there are supply chains to manage. Could it be used to track responsibly sourced products through the supply chain and stop unscrupulous individuals from claiming something is certified when it’s not? The first thing that would need to be agreed upon is what goes into a responsible sourcing block, the initial measure of ‘value’, in Bitcoin (the most famous application of blockchain) this is the solving of algorithms and the verification of these by multiple, anonymous users.

What would a responsible sourcing ‘block’ look like? It could simply contain details of the product, who created it, when it was traded, cost etc., and then track that product through the supply chain, adding a new block every time the product was moved to the next organisation in the supply chain. This would mean you could trace exactly who had what and when. It could also tell you who has a certification and who doesn’t, but we have simple databases that do that for us already, why over complicate it unless it’s going to improve the process?

Furthermore, it would still be subject to the same risks as a traditional certification (corruption/bribes/fake certificates etc.) because each certification would be generated by just two organisations, the certifying body and the applicant. This lacks the authentication of an anonymous group arriving at the same conclusion (like the multi-user validation seen through solving algorithms with Bitcoin). I cannot see, at this time, how blockchain reduces this risk unless you have multiple people checking the audit and confirming compliance. Therefore, this could just make the current system more complicated and potentially more expensive.

My second thought was about using blockchain to improve the way responsible sourcing certifications assess their applicants. This is where I think blockchain could have a huge impact. The employees of a company could become a blockchain group (known as pools) who assess the performance of their organisation on a periodic basis and their feedback is used to create blocks. This could anonymously record the conditions, pay, holiday, provision of facilities and other metrics encountered by the employees. Every time a new block was added the company’s progress could be tracked, providing evidence to support the certification, or verify that the minimum requirements were being adhered to. However, our workforce is increasingly being replaced by robots, who don’t really care about conditions, and this wouldn’t work in small operations because it would be fairly easy to identify employees who had provided negative feedback. Also, many developing countries, where responsible sourcing is focussed, struggle with connectivity, would their employees even have access to the internet?

It’s definitely something I’ll be keeping a close eye on and thinking about how it could improve Totem Sustainability, the data we collect and manage, and how it can help deliver value to our clients.

What do you think? Is blockchain just a fad? Would it make things too complicated? Are there any ways you think blockchain can help manage sustainability impacts? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas!

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