Tuesday 11 July 2023

Jessie Baker - Founder & CEO of Provenance.org


I think that by now we all believe that for the world to be a better place, to thrive and survive that we should have transparency in our supply chains, am I right? But right now it still seems like a mammoth task to bring everyone together and to track every element so that we can stop companies from greenwashing. This is where Jessi steps in with Provenance. Provenance enable trusted product sustainability claims and by using Tech they help brands communicate their social and environmental impact. The result for us is the ability to shop our values. Jessi is a visionary and pioneering woman in so many ways and in the field of Tech where there are still so very few women. It’s amazing what she is doing, I am sure you will enjoy this.

D: I found you when I was researching one of my other women and I absolutely loved what you are doing. It’s fantastic that you are using technology to create transparency.


J: We still have a long way to go, but we're very much of the philosophy that you can't change what you can't see. So, our job at Provenance is to bring all of that information into the light. We are finally getting to an era where brands want to be more transparent.


D: Jessi what were your influences growing up that shaped the person you are today?


J: My childhood years were spent in North London, in Kentish Town. Then when I was a teenager, we moved to the countryside not far from Bath. We grew up on a building site as my parents converted a cottage into a home.


My parents are both entrepreneurial they have always worked for themselves and had different businesses from restaurants to manufacturing companies. They also like to buy products with good Provenance – know the origin and how they were created. Mum and Dad are very focused on who they are investing in when they buy products and are big supporters of buying local and a lot of the of the movements which I guess inspired me with Provenance.


I have always been fascinated with the way things are made and I spent a lot of time whilst growing up building and taking them apart, which has been very much part of my foundation. As a natural progression of that curiosity, I went on to study engineering at university.


D: I guess by watching your parents renovate the property it become part of your DNA.


J: Yes, there was a lot of building both in business and the house. 



D: Tell us about your university years as you did quite a lot of learning.


J: I did, and still am, that is my top interest, to always be learning. I studied engineering as an undergrad which was very focused on manufacturing engineering. That's where I learned about supply chains and got to see how things were made.


We saw how the supply chains worked behind food products, automotive supply chains and I also went to factories that made beauty products. The course was hands on, in that we got to experience a lot of the reality behind our products. Then with a grant from the University I got to travel a fashion supply chain which was really interesting, going to India and around the US.


D:  What sparked your interest in that supply chain?


J: It was seeing lots of different manufacturing sites, I was interested in fashion in general and I really wanted to see the reality behind the clothes I was buying. Perhaps some of what we had seen through our course made me start to question ‘well what about the jumper I'm wearing?’ Fashion is also a very manual supply chain – lots of people are behind everything we buy and wear.


The specialty for my Masters was garment production, looking at how garments were made, and included an internship at Mulberry. Having watched how they were making the bags influenced my decision to go see more, which led me to American Apparel in LA.


It was an interesting time to be there because they had a really crazy man running the company who was awful in so many ways, but he also did a lot of really positive things in the supply chain. He fought for the rights of many of his workers, and the supply chain was vertically integrated in the business. He was sourcing cotton from Texas, they were creating everything in LA, all the dyeing machines were there, a lot of the ecological footprints weren’t too bad for the fashion industry at the time (2007). They used to say that the only thing that they outsourced was FedEx, they were a real pioneer in that way.


D: Tech is a very male dominated world at the moment. How do you feel navigating within it?


J: It's interesting because I have been part of it for a long time and yes it is super male dominated, but it does feel like there are more women joining the industry, and I think that as it becomes a larger industry it becomes more attractive to women. As much as I am passionate about having more women engineers, and I think there should be, I think that that problem starts way before the tech industry, it’s a problem that starts when girls are told to play with dolls and not cars - the problem starts with play, rather than the job market.


D: It’s good to see you leading the way for women.


J: Trying to, because you can't be what you can't see, right?


D: Exactly. Was it when you were doing a PhD that you pivoted your direction as far as your career was concerned?


J: I had started out in manufacturing engineering, then I took up software design and development and was doing that for a long time which led to a PhD in Computer Science and from that I really got into the software side. For the PhD I was researching technologies to enable transparency in supply chains, as I already knew I wanted to do something in that area. Provenance was a side project I set up alongside my PhD to see whether I could create something applicable to the to the real world that would actually help companies, people and the planet.


D: Do you feel having that side hustle helped you with your PhD?


J: Running a company and doing a PhD at the same time was a horrible idea and would never do that again. It was like you're failing at two things at once because there’s no way you could do both at the same time. Eventually Provenance won and I stopped doing my PhD even though I had almost finished it. This was a tough choice after all the work I’d put in, but the right one.


D: What are your aims for Provenance?


J: The key thing we're trying to do is have every product in the world show its impact on people and the planet. That’s what we are working to enable. We really want a world where; in the same way when you pick up food at supermarkets, where there is a content label with, salt, fat, red, amber, green, it’s very clear and you can easily tell if that's bad or good for you; what we want is the same for impact Carbon, Waste and People.


You might ask ‘why don't you build that straight away?’ I have tried, but it turns out that none of the data to enable a labelling system like that is available. Also brands are very far away from publishing the level of information needed to enable us to put the impact on every single product. Provenance is a catalyst to get to that future, by making it as easy as possible for brands to be transparent on this information, making it attractive, making it something that builds brand value. Ideally, we will to get to a future where so many brands are transparent that creating those labels is easy.



D: How does Provenance work?


J: To give you a bit of context, as a company we've done a bit a pivot. When I first started the business, I was naive and thought that we could really track every single product end to end through the supply chain. That you'd be able to have a product in your hand and track it all the way back to the fishermen who caught it. We did manage to do that several times, we really did manage to link together all of that data. It was incredibly difficult, incredibly incredibly difficult and the level of cooperation needed to enable that was absolutely insane. But we managed it for various products.


Then we decided, we've got to be clear what our role in this is, because we can't do end to end for every single product in the world that’s impossible, and there are loads of other companies that do the internal transparency piece. They help with traceability, or they help measure impact in supply chains. So, what we've really specialised in is being the consistent, comprehensive, credible method for publishing the information on the web. We sit at the end of the supply chain and we help you to publish that data and make it available to the world. We connect with lots of different systems, like traceability systems to get that information and make it public, providing this consistent layer across all that information. We work with the brands to help them to gather up all the data they need, and we connect it all into our system, and help them publish it across multiple products, markets and channels. We also provide insights into drive investments in ESG from market intelligence – an important part of our impact.


D: So for example if you were working with a fashion brand, you would find out where the cotton was grown, who was who was picking it?


J: Sort of! We gather all of that information then help make it all public in a trustworthy format. As a citizen, you interact with Provenance through the brands own ecosystem, we are powering the data within their e-commerce which allows you to see information related to origin, the different suppliers involved and the most important thing we try to do is show the impact each product has through sustainability claims. To do that we have a feature called Proof Points, which point to things like carbon neutral and all the different reasons to believe in a product, which includes lots of the leading certifications. That's our way of helping you understand which product to buy. It’s the beginning, but works well for where the market is in terms of being transparent.


D: In a way you're creating a revolution, a tech revolution. How will this link with a sustainable future?


J: Our core belief is, that all the solutions to sustainability already exist. We know that as a company you could make your products sustainable if you wanted to. If money was no object, then absolutely you could install renewable energy throughout your supply chain, you could pay your workers fairly, you could clean the water. All of the solutions to sustainable products exist. The problem is that they haven't been adopted quickly enough, and the market is not driving adoption fast enough. We certainly can't wait for regulation, because that is moving like a glacier.


We are creating impact by making social and environmental impacts equate to brand value. We believe that's going to be a catalyst for businesses to invest in sustainable solutions quicker. At the moment sustainability is seen as a cost, it’s seen as a risk to a business, on a cost basis. What we want to do is turn it into a profit, turn it into something that can grow a business, grow a brand. Our job is to turn social environmental impact, into brand value, that's the main way we believe we can have impact and catalyse the adoption of systems that make products more sustainable.


D: Has Blockchain and Bitcoin helped with what you're doing? Can you explain how that works?


J: I got into blockchain tech when I was doing my PhD for a few reasons, I'm quite passionate about decentralisation, I think the Internet is absolutely amazing technology, it's incredible how much it has connected the world. But I think it's become very centralised and controlled by very few people. So, I feel we need solutions that help re-decentralise the web so that the people who create valuable networks like Facebook or Uber actually benefit properly financially, whereas at the moment we are the product and we don't benefit hugely from it. The key thing I find interesting about blockchain tech is that it's a solution to that. It helps people create networks where there's no controller of the network and everyone can benefit from contributing to it. Like a big co-operative.


We were very early to the party (2013), the blockchain space is still super nascent, it's still very experimental, like the Internet in 1995 and that's cool, I think what we're trying to do is show that and it's been difficult. We don't want to develop too quickly because it's still so nascent, but at the same time the last thing I want Provenance to be is a Facebook of products, that's not helpful. That would mean we could be corrupted, and we could create lies, and we don't want that. We exist to enable transparency and stamp out greenwash. To do that we must design our tech to enable that on a fundamental level.


The whole idea of building on a blockchain is to try and make sure that the trust in the information is transparent and decentralised. The idea is that each company can participate in it fully and independently, without Provenance controlling everything. We still have a ways to go, but the philosophy holds true.


D: It allows for more trust doesn't it, because you can't really tamper with it once it's there.


J: The great thing about it is that it's like a record book where everybody can see what's written and no one can screw around with it, it's all auditable by everyone, which almost negates the need to trust because you can see everything, versus today where everything is behind closed doors.



D: How did you go about building the business? and how did you manage to get to where you are now?


J: It’s been an interesting journey. When I first started the company I thought we would start in the fashion industry because that's what I knew the most about, and actually that was one of the hardest because it's amazing how little the fashion industry knows about its supply chain. So little!


Also, when I first started Provenance there was very little consumer interest in ethical fashion, it was really niche, luckily that changed over time.


To start we pivoted and focused on food and that went really well because food is already an established market for this kind of information, so we proved ourselves with food. Now we have some projects in fashion over the past few years we started working with the beauty industry too, which has been good and is growing really quickly with consumer demand for sustainability information.


Our customers are brands who work with our SaaS and data platform. Our partnerships are with those that help us to verify the information and we work with certifiers, for example The Soil Association Organic or Natrue who are a part of our system helping to bring credibility to the information.

We also work with verifiers who are like auditors that sit in supply chains that can also help validate information and software solutions can act as verifiers also – machine rather than human. These are our key partners in the network.


D: You have 5 rules for communicating your impact could you tell us what those are?


J: We have many rules. The seven signs of greenwash, are a really good base for making sure you're communicating well and sticking to the rules.


D: What are the seven signs of greenwashing?


J: The seven signs of greenwash are:


1.     Not proving it - a key part of our thesis at Provenance, is that we really believe that any claim by a brand should have some evidence or verification before that claim. If a brand hasn’t any kind of evidence or supporting information against the claim it could be untrustworthy.


2.     Vague language - things like green, clean, eco-friendly, quite fluffy terms like this that don't really mean anything, we find they can be a sign that perhaps something not so genuine is happening.


3.      Suggestive design – using nature to imply you are doing more than you are.


4.     Speaking in jargon – making it difficult for people to understand what you are doing.


5.     Only spotlighting the good – showing one good thing when everything else is negative.


6.     Making your own secret standard – not using benchmarks and familiar language.


7.     Not being held to account – independent parties should always be able to audit the data.


These are our seven signs of greenwash that we publish so citizens can ask more questions, but it's also quite a good guide for brands too.


Our five rules of communication are there to make sure that you really justify everything that you are sharing, that it has evidence, that you speak in plain language, those kinds of things, and we are constantly evolving them. The key things we try to promote at Providence are consistent, comprehensive, credible those three things are important. If you are not consistent in how you talk about sustainability you're going to confuse people. If you are not comprehensive you're going to mislead them, and if you're not credible then you're probably greenwashing.




D: How open are people to working in these new ways?


J: We have only really scratched the surface of what blockchains are going to be able to do as a technology. I believe it's as big a step change as say mobile, if you think of all the applications that you can now have because of the iPhone, I think this is on a similar level to that. There are applications that don't even exist, yet they will happen because of blockchains, but it's so nascent and companies want to rush in and play with it because they can tell it’s the future, it's pretty clear. But it's weird because you want to play with it, but you can’t actually create until you really understand it, and it’s embedded in society.


Think of it this way if there were only 10 iPhones you would never build Uber, because there's only 10 people with an iPhone. It would be hard for you to even think of Uber because there’s only 10 of them.

I think blockchains in a similar space. Even the way we are using it is quite behind the scenes, we don't talk about it that much because we find it confuses people. We know what we're trying to do and as we get scalable it makes more and more sense but we try not to talk about it too much, because it is a bit confusing for people right now. It's still too early too nascent a technology.



D: What do you see for the future?


J: I'm quite excited for the next decade. People are waking up to the climate crisis a bit more than they were, which is great, because that is the priority, my point of view for the future is equality and climate crisis they are the only things I really care about. We have more woken minds, to that as the priority now which is good. As I said, earlier I think all the solutions to those things are already here, so now it's, how can we create incentive systems that get them adopted much quicker. I personally think technology is the solution to that. I think we have to create knew systems, that get those things adopted really really quickly.


D: As a pathway to side step legislation which as you said isn't moving as fast as it should be.


J: It really isn't, we need legislation, but if we wait on that we're all gonna be boiling in the ocean before we know it.


D: It’s less than 7 years until 2030.


J: Exactly, we’ve got to create big systemic change quickly, and I think to do that it's got to be markets, and it's got to be tech, tech networks, those things together it’s how all the big things that have happened in the past ten years have happened. 







Provenance on Insta


Jessi Baker










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