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The Backstory of Stuff: New Sites Enable More Transparency in the Supply Chain

by Kirstin Butler

In simpler times, just checking the tag inside a t-shirt was enough to qualify you as a discerning consumer. Choosing goods “made in the USA” over countries with more lenient labor laws meant that you’d done your due diligence as a shopper. As geopolitics have become more complex, though, so too has the supply and demand of stuff; and now making even the most basic purchases can be fraught with considerably more anxiety.

The good news is that while the times have gotten more complicated, technology has kept pace. Finally the tools to enable meaningful supply-chain transparency have come of age, and more people than ever before can use them.

Until recently, visualizing global goods’ sourcing was the domain of contemporary artists and technoactivists. Tracing an object back to its origins could be a time-consuming and frustrating process that meant doing solitary research and creating original interfaces. But the increased accessibility of online mapping tools and wiki-style collaborations have changed the cartography of consumption.

Enter Sourcemap, an open-source application for collective supply chain research and mapping. When WorldChanging first reported on Sourcemap last year the project had yet to launch; now its users have already traced the global travels of products as diverse as cars, granola, and lace (even though the site is still in beta mode).

Introduction to Sourcemap from Matthew Hockenberry on Vimeo.

An MIT-based team built Sourcemap’s applications around Google Earth, and its geotagged food, travel, and product maps will look familiar to anyone who has called up a set of road trip directions. Still, while not the exclusive province of programmers, Sourcemap does require some skill with computing language to manipulate data. Most visitors to the site will probably gain the most from viewing supply chains in progress.

Even the pinpoint accuracy of a global map, however, can lack the immediacy of a human story. That’s where high-profile advocacy can take up the charge of transparency for more just and sustainable sourcing practices. A great example is the Enough Project’s Come Clean 4 Congo campaign, which seeks to connect the points between your cell phone and conflict minerals.

Where Sourcemap will tell you the carbon footprint of your computer’s production, the Enough Project will show you the Congolese miner who gathered minerals for its motherboard. It’s one thing to be aware of the abstract threat posed by your devices and gadgets, and quite another to know that they directly support global conflict.

The Enough Project’s strategies include urging companies to pledge that their products are conflict free and providing letter-writing and petition tools for congressional lobbying.

(COME CLEAN FOR CONGO: LIFE SHOULD BE FREE. Produced by emote360 and World Relief NEXT)

We’ve come a long way in terms of both the possibility and practice of backstory. Now that crowdsourcing models, data-driven applications, and social media tools are being widely embraced as ways to tell the supply-chain story, the next step is to integrate these developments into public awareness of the things we buy.

Society has gained greater sophistication of global economic and political principles the hard way, but maybe the appeal of some cool new tools will make this next level of enlightened consumer consciousness a little easier to reach.

Kirstin Butler is a generalist editor, researcher, and writer who lives in Brooklyn. She holds a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University.

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Great idea. It's tough to source materials for nearly every industry out there, so the more global supply chain transparency, the better. How else can one assess the long-term sustainability and risk of a co? If a co's main product requires a metal mined in a high-conflict area, I'd want to know as a consumer/investor/business partner. End-of-life tracking is another overlooked aspect of product distribution: 'Smuggling Europe's Waste to Poorer Countries'

Posted by: Molly on 29 Sep 09

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