Blockchain’s potential to Shed Light on Sustainable Products and Systems

Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology. Its killer feature is that it enables decentralized transactions. Example: You may have heard of Bitcoin. Bitcoin uses blockchain technology to facilitate financial transactions without banks.

There are blockchain experiments in journalism, like civil,  that are exploring new business models in a field whose hierarchy was disrupted by the internet. There are experiments happening in about every sector: transportation, education, healthcare. If the internet disrupted command and control systems, then Blockchain, and it’s decentralized model, promises to be the solution to that disruption.

One application of that excites me is blockchains potential to track the social and environmental ethics that are embedded in supply chains. There’s a model in sustainable product design called “Life Cycle Assessment”  or LCA. LCA can be used to measure the environmental and social impact of products and industrial systems. There are a lot of variations of LCA, but to give you a broad sense of what it tracks, we might look at the social and environmental impacts of how the raw materials for a gadget were mined; how they were manufactured; distributed; used; and in the end, reclaimed or recycled.

As you can imagine, one of the challenges in communicating LCA to decision makers (consumers, citizens, or policy makers) is that there’s a lot of variation in what and how things are measured with LCA models. The lack of universal standards is often pointed to as a challenge. But blockchain might turn that challenge into an opportunity. How might blockchain LCA be more dynamic and thus more appropriate for decision-makers? For example, in California a decision-maker might want to put more weight on how much water is wasted in a product’s LCA. Yet in upstate New York, where water is plentiful, this data point might carry less weight. Blockchain can accommodate this fine-tuning. Which can be scary if used to manufacture alternative facts. But can be quite powerful if used to make the social and environmental costs of products more visible than they are now.



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