Can using blockchain to verify cotton as organic help revive the industry in Haiti?
Haiti hasn’t grown cotton in decades. Its once-abundant industry collapsed in the 1970s due to government corruption, economic mismanagement, and U.S. embargoes. But now, thanks to a project involving thousands of smallholder farmers, apparel brands like Timberland, and a blockchain network, it could be set for a comeback. Within a few years, if all goes to plan, the island will be supplying millions of pounds of organic cotton for shoes, shirts, and other clothing.
The Blockchain Cotton Project in Haiti is one of several around the world looking to use a distributed digital ledger for supply chain management. The same technology that tracks transactions of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can also track commodities and products as they leave fields and move through factories and distribution centers. Blockchains have the potential to boost transparency and lower the cost of authenticating the origin of products, particularly those of an organic and fair trade variety, say supply chain experts.
“The promise of blockchain is that we can trace the purchase back to the farmer and the field. That not only increases the visibility of our supply chain but also enables us to share more robust stories with our consumers,” says Atlanta McIlwraith, Timberland’s senior manager for community engagement and relations, in an interview.
Timberland has committed to meeting up to a third of its global cotton needs from Haiti–2,750 metric tons a year–assuming the project can meet quality and cost targets. The SFA recently planted the first cotton trees using funding from Timberland and Vans, which is part of the same retail group, VF Corporation (Patagonia has also expressed interest in being involved). Better Sourcing Program, a supply chain technology provider, and RCS Global, a supply chain advisory firm, are helping to develop the concept, along with students from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “For now, the project only involves a handful of farmers, but, once ramped up, it could see up to 17,000 onboard within five years,” says Hugh Locke, cofounder of the SFA.
“Consumers want to purchase from brands that they trust and one of the things that helps build that trust with consumers is this transparency and the ability to tell stories about your product that aren’t just fizzle,” McIlwraith says. “They want real stories about real people and this helps make our products more relatable.”