Reimagining the Supply Chain
Since our founding in 1980, responsible sourcing has been at the heart of what we do. We’re always on the lookout for producers who share that passion. Which is why we’re so excited about Soli Essentials – a curated line of essential oils from the makers of Pacha Soap Co. Each of their essential oils are harvested and distilled from a single source, their supply chain is designed from the ground up to support biodiversity, environmental stewardship, and artisanal production in rural communities around the globe. Through Soli’s innovative use of blockchain technology, these essential oils are fully traceable – from harvest to bottle.
“We can talk about rosewood now as a real example of hope, and as a real opportunity; as something that has tremendous potential.“
Robin Van Loon, Founder & Executive Director, Camino Real
Welcome to the Peruvian Amazon
Behind the Scenes in Peru
What the Heck is a Blockchain?
A conversation with Andy Thornton, VP, Sourcing and Impact, Pacha Soap Co.
Whole Story: Introduce yourself.
Andy Thornton: So, I am Andy Thornton. I am the VP of Sourcing and Impact at Pacha Soap Co. My job is to look after all of the impact that we have as a company in our production, our donations and our supply chain.
WS: Let’s jump right into it: What is a blockchain?
AT: Blockchain is basically a different way of storing data. So, rather than uploading the data to a server, or someone’s computer, or the cloud, you upload it into a database which is shared across everyone’s platform engaging with the database. What that does is build trust, because you cannot edit the data without everybody else seeing it. For example, if you have a file on your computer, you can just drag it into the trash and it’s gone, right? When you’ve got a piece of information on a blockchain, if you change it, anyone else on the blockchain can always go in and see the change.
WS: I think a fair amount of people are probably familiar with the idea of the blockchain in the context of cryptocurrency. How are you guys using the blockchain to evolve the way that you source products around the world?
AT: Let’s say you’re buying a pizza using cryptocurrency. Blockchain is logging the transaction between me, the buyer of the pizza, and you, the seller of the pizza, and, rather than using a piece of paper money, which is tracked by the Treasury, it’s a piece of blockchain crypto, which is tracked by the overall network. So, supply chains can use the same technology but add extra steps for more transparency. Let’s say I’m buying essential oils, I don’t know where the product comes from other than what the vendor tells me, but I have no proof of that origin. But if you, in the production of the essential oils, have logged every step of the supply chain in blockchain, then I can get all that information when I’m buying the essential oil from you. I get this unique data set that shows me actually what’s going on in the supply chain, and that data set is completely transparent for others in the blockchain.
WS: For you, what’s the most exciting thing about integrating the blockchain technology into Pacha’s supply chain?
AT: I think the biggest thing for us is about putting supply chain transparency into the hands of the consumer. The challenge with other forms of supply chain verification is normally, you’re trusting an external body to go and do that check for you, and that’s fine. That is a good solution and it’s a scalable one. It has been very successful. But then, we also want to be able to show that data to the consumer so that they really have the insight into what’s going on in that supply chain. Total transparency. Therefore, the thing that I’m most excited about is how we can connect and engage consumers with supply chains, because all of the potential progress really hinges on the fact that consumers have to care. It’s easy for me to care; this is my day to day job. I care about it radically. But I respect that, for many people, it’s difficult. We all have limited attention spans. It’s difficult to really get into some of these very, very complex things without having an easy access point. So, that’s really what we’re working on: yes, we want the data; yes, we want to be able to have all the tracking; yes, we want the traceability. But the most important part is that we will be able to bring consumers along on that journey and help create the incentive for more great supply chains driven by consumer demand
WS: You’re integrating storytelling about where products come from and who produces them into the nuts and bolts of how you get that product from point A to point B and how it shows up on the shelf.
AT: Yeah. 100%. We think of it like the farmer’s market. Community supported agriculture has driven a lot of change in the US around the way that we engage with agriculture, creating personal, intimate, empathetic connections to the where our food comes from, and I think that’s really important to driving to that sustainable change. But how do you do that in those supply chains which can’t be down the road from you. You can’t pitch up at the farmer’s market and buy shea butter, you know, from the people who make it. It’s just not grown in America. So, how do you create that traceability and that sense of connectedness that we get with the farmer’s market in a globalized market? That’s one of the challenges that we set ourselves and we call it: farmer’s market to the world. How can we create that same sense of an experience of engaging with the supply chain? And I’m sure you don’t, and indeed, I don’t go to the farmer’s market and think, “I’m gonna go and engage with my supply chain.” I go to the farmer’s market ‘cause it’s fun, and I get great products that I like, and I meet good people, and I learn fun things. That’s the same thing we want to happen with globalized supply chains. The majority of the world’s food is created by smallholder farmers. By farmers who own five hectares or less of land. So, there’s a huge opportunity, both to create human connection, and create a huge amount of good and transformation in the world by connecting supply chains to people.
WS: Following onto that, can you define why should consumers care where these products come from? What are the stakes?
AT: Transparency is the light that you can shine into a supply chain to allow consumers to make an informed choice for them. Ultimately, if you have information, you have the opportunity to make decisions based on it. So, really, what I’m excited about with blockchain, and what I think it does in the supply chain, is the democratization of data within our supply chain. Don’t tell me this is true, show me this is true. Give me the proof and let the consumer make their own decisions.
WS: How has Whole Foods Market worked with Pacha to bring Soli Essential Oils to the shelf?
AT: The Soli product was basically conceived side by side with Whole Foods. We use a lot of essential oils within our Pacha portfolio, and we’re very passionate about them; we’re very passionate about scent, the experiential nature of it, and we were sharing that with the team at Whole Foods. As an example, we took a product that most people are familiar with in the essential oil world, which is lavender. I think everyone knows what lavender smells like, right? But lavender is not one plant; there are a huge variety of lavenders out there and they smell really different. It’s a little bit similar to, say, coffee; you used to have just light roast and dark roast coffee. And now, it’s a whole aisle of the supermarket. It’s become all about origin, and we understand that there are different ways that you grow it, there are different types of plants, there are different climates and altitudes that all make a difference to the coffee. This same situation is true for pretty much every plant in the world and it creates significant impacts on the products that come from those plants. This is totally true with something like lavender. There are a huge number and varieties of lavender, and normally when we experience lavender, what we’re getting is a blended product. People are blending for consistency, and there’s nothing wrong with that, you can get some beautiful blended lavenders. That’s great. What Soli is about is single sourcing oils from artisan producers and bringing the consumer a really differentiated essential oil experience akin to single malt scotch or specialty coffee – showing the magical differences that come direct from nature. We actually have three lavenders in our collection. Two from France and one from Bulgaria, curated to highlight the diversity in the species. As an example, we have an AOP(protected designation of origin) oil from the original lavender producing region of France. It’s a protected region, and it’s high altitude lavender; it has this amazing sweet top note to it when you first smell it, and it’s really, really different from just a normal lavender. You should try it!
We think that people care about that level of specialty and that level of differentiation, and we’re excited to bring that level of transparency and the differentiation to market; Whole Foods cares about naturally differentiated products and great sourcing too and that’s where the collaboration began. But also, in terms of just creating a wonderful user experience. You know, you could just forget all about the sourcing stories and just experience the essential oils on their own and they totally stand up to that. They are really beautiful and differentiated products because of the nature of where they come from.
WS: Specifically, what effects would you hope that this project would have on the larger global supply chain?
AT: I think, if I can sum it up sort of simply, I want to make supply chains sexy. We’re constantly bombarded by images and stories these days, so it’s very, very hard to stand out in that environment. What we’re trying to do is really build stories and content based on engaging and authentic platforms that will then enable consumers to engage with longstanding impact that can come from great supply chains. You’ve got to capture people; we don’t have time to think about everything, and so the challenge is how do you create the environment for people to engage more in supply chains cause they’re really, really complex. And if complexity plays into obfuscation, and if we can’t get around that with transparency and new technology we’re in trouble. I think there’s real hope to keep positive change going, so it doesn’t start sliding the other way. The first step on that journey is getting people to engage.
One of the things I like most about working with Pacha and Soli is that we’re really trying to be mindful about what we can do within our own brand, but also how we can play a wider role within both the natural product sector, and supply chains. What we’re saying with this is that we don’t think that we have all the answers to changing and improving supply chains, but we’re just taking some fairly big bets in our supply chains to bring new technology to market. Having done that, what we’re trying to do right now is work out how we can share that with others. We don’t want to just create traceability that’s just for us, that’s our brand and no one else can us it. We want the supply chains that we work in to find other partners to work with. What we’re trying to really work on is how can we be a spring pad for more innovation and more change in supply chains.
I love working at Pacha. I love the people I work with. I love the products we produce, and I’m really passionate about it. And then, moreover, I think we’re really trying to take some steps to see how we can shake up supply chains to be a part of what we want to see in the future. I think that we’ve seen this before with the group of founding companies at the beginning of the natural products industry who came together around things like the organic standard, and that’s been incredibly successful. You can buy organic milk right across the US now. This has had a huge impact on our agriculture. The thing that we ask ourselves a lot at Pacha is, what are the next generation of brands, like ourselves, going to contribute? That’s something that we spend a lot of time thinking about and actually working with other brands to say, “Okay, how do we, how can we be a part of changing this system for the better?” We’re calling this initiative ProvenSource.
WS: What role does the consumer have in making that future a reality?
AT: I think a lot of this stuff ends up getting blamed on the consumers. Brands say, oh well, consumers didn’t do or engage enough. I think there’s a two-way street, though. A lot of what we’re working on is how do we make it fun! It’s not like listening to a “supply chain expert” tell you about all the problems of the world is fun. That’s just not engaging. But the interesting thing is that when you take the example of the Peruvian Amazon, one of our sourcing regions, it’s genuinely one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been. It’s one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The stories that exist in the power of the diversification of nature are basically endless. We’ve just got to find the right ways to tell these stories. The nice thing about modern digital media is you don’t have to tell one story. You can tell twelve, and then people can choose the one they want, and then they can have more of that type of story. Our problem is not the lack of stories. We have too many stories. Way too many stories. Our problem is getting the right ones to the right people, and that’s what we’re working on; how do we have real transparency in data and do the hard stuff really well but also do the engagement piece really well because one without the other doesn’t work. You either bore people or you’re greenwashing and neither of these is ok. The point is to blend those two pieces of engagement and data together to create something that people want to engage with, and that’s what we’re constantly working on, both with Soli and with Pacha, and more widely with our peers in the industry. Be on the lookout for more information on this as we launch ProvenSource!