Lifting 250,000 people out of poverty is a lofty, laudable and specific goal you don't hear often enough from startups these days. Even more surprising when working in the global fashion industry. 'So Just Shop' provides a digital marketplace to bring goods (made by a range of different artisan sellers) to a wider audience, and it uses blockchain to do it. Currently focused on women-led initiatives, SJS ensures fair practices, prices and working conditions for all our suppliers through transparency in the supply chain that blockchain affords it. "Without Blockchain it's unlikely we'd be here at all - it's just perfect timing," says So Just ShopCEO, Jennifer Georgeson.
Georgeson is probably right because to do what SJS is doing would cost too much to be viable otherwise. While it is possible, selling with transparency is impractical for the region SJS operates in and the people it wants to help. "The barriers for female-led artisan businesses to reach global markets are many and varied. Many artisan groups are forced to sell through intermediaries as their only viable route to market, often receiving less than 20% of the final selling price of the product. That wasn't good enough, so we flipped it."
SJS launched in 2016 with eight sellers in five countries and now have deals with Bloomingdales and Anthropologie thanks to the 32 sellers from 15 countries over three continents they have attracted to the platform because of the transparency and consumer demand. So Just Shop is currently developing a mobile-led product to monitor a products' provenance from the creation of raw materials (from wool on an animal in an identified herd through to woven cotton) through primary and secondary manufacturing processes, to finishing and shipping, verifying payment of living wages and fair working conditions from end-to-end. Mobile phones are widely used tools in our Artisan communities, not just for communications but as payment mechanisms.
Currently, the majority of supply chains track through a manual, labour intensive approaches (even with automation), whatever the industry, with the vast majority of time and expense spent visiting manufacturers/suppliers premises, tracking products through a 'paper' based processes still occur. Validating supply chains is expensive and out of reach of most small businesses, and can only offer a one-off snapshot view of the business processes at that moment in time. Goods aren't the only area where Blockchain will have a massive impact - the food production industry is also exploring the technology to using digital stamps and tracking mechanisms to follow products from inception to sale, and hence demonstrate transparency and, for example, fair trade, through the end-to-end supply chain. Think about allergies or Halal, and you have billion dollar markets that need to control how products are made and transported.
Blockchain allows SJS to provide a marketplace to directly showcase products and process online payments, while also providing design, financial and technological support. SJS is helping communities to increase their revenues, achieve significantly better profit margins and ultimately grow their businesses while taking a small percentage to cover costs and invest back in the business. The team are currently building the prototype for the blockchain with the mobile product and plan to have integration of this element by end of the year.
No system is perfect, Georgeson points out; "Supply chain is notoriously hard to track and to verify. We have the advantage that we are working with small-scale artisans, and we know they are making the products end to end. However, regarding raw materials this is tricky, how can we know exactly where the recycled brass used in much of our jewellery originates? We can ensure that everyone on our system is of working age, using biometric ID systems and that living wage payments transfer to the right people, but we are reliant on the correct information being input into the system at the beginning. So the system will not be perfect, but at least if we have a system, with all its potential failings, we can find solutions to them as we go."
Blockchain continues to be utilised by underrepresented and marginalised groups of society. Recent data from Quartz shows a lack of female founders in the arena, roughly 8.5 percent while the tech industry as a whole is around 17.7 percent. Perhaps Blockchain will be the great leveller for many but if this is to be the case, more female founders need to come forward and take control of this still emerging and evolving technology.
Article written by Paul Armstrong for Forbes.