Do you know where your stuff comes from? Not just that your t-shirt is made in Vietnam or your cell phone is made in China—do you really know where every ingredient in that t-shirt or cell phone comes from? Chances are you don't. Neither did the researchers at MIT Media Lab who came up with Sourcemap, a so-called "social network for supply chains" that maps out where the ingredients in any given product come from.
After Leonardo Bonanni first announced Sourcemap in 2011, people and companies uploaded thousands of convoluted maps that revealed just how far product ingredients often have to travel. This week, Stonyfield—a well-known producer of organic yogurt—worked with Sourcemap to create a customer-friendly supply chain map of its ingredients.
The end result is much simpler than a map for, say, a computer with parts that travel from place to place across the globe. But it wasn't as easy to put together as you might think.
The map, which has been in the works for about a year, has a number of purposes. "It's a tool that could help engage not just internal stakeholders in supply chain issues but could really get consumers and retail customers involved," says Wood Turner, vice president of sustainability at Stonyfield.
Stonyfield's map is easy to use: Just click on a picture of an ingredient (pear, blueberry, cow, etc.) to learn more about the farmers behind it. Clicking on a peach icon located in California tells me that Stonyfield uses a handful of peach varieties (Country Sweet, Sweet Dream, Yellow Elberta, Zee Lady). I also learn about the history of Stonyfield's peach suppliers, including one called Wawona that started out as a roadside stand in the Central Valley town of Clovis.
Most of Stonyfield's suppliers are in the U.S., though a handful are elsewhere. The company's vanilla, for example, comes from Madagascar. Sugarcane comes from a supplier in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In some instances, Stonyfield already knew the stories that it wanted to tell about suppliers. "Many of the relationships we have with suppliers are long standing, deeply rooted relationships. In other cases, we used project to build deeper relationships—in engaging suppliers to bring their story to life, asking them to do something kind of different," says Turner. The process created new relationships and new opportunities, but it takes awhile, asking them to engage."
Difficult as it may have been, putting together Stonyfield's sourcing map was easy compared to what a lot of companies would face. "We really do believe in relationship sourcing model for our ingredients. Other companies might find it more difficult to go back to the beginning and figure out where ingredients come from," admits Turner. As new conflict mineral reporting rules in the U.S. have revealed, even seemingly responsible companies have trouble getting to the origins of their products (when the rule went into effect, a startling number of companies, including Google and Apple, admitted that they still didn't know whether they used conflict minerals, even after extensive investigation).
Stonyfield's end goal is a system that lets customers scan a product and immediately learn where its ingredients were harvested. "It's hard to get consumers excited about food on a website. The goal is to use mobile to do that," says Turner.