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Blockchain for Ethical Shopping: A Deep Dive

June 12, 2019
James Hall


Blockchain for Ethical Shopping: A Deep Dive

A recent article by CNN Business asks if blockchain can help you become a more ethical shopper. While the simple answer is yes, the reason why is much more complex. In fact, the article itself does not appropriately distinguish between the use of public and private blockchains or establish whether open or closed blockchains offer the more “ethical” solution for shoppers. While both help shoppers make more informed choices, permissionless blockchains ensure that the information you are being provided is, in fact, from a “trustless” network of nodes whereas a permissioned blockchain is still centralized and the information remains constantly subject to manipulation. Readers, moreover, must understand this differentiation here since both solutions can provide a “yes” to the question posed, but for very different reasons.

As one use-case for supply chain tracking, the article looks at illegal fishing. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, 31% of catches worldwide are illegal. Using blockchain to take on this issue, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) offers a solution for ethical Pacific tuna fishing by offering a tracking platform it launched called OpenSc. All tuna that are caught are individually tagged and tracked so that any shopper can scan its QR code to find out where the tuna was “caught, manufactured, processed and how it was transported to the shop” ensuring the product you are consuming matches the information provided on the label.

Digging a bit deeper than the article, we learn much more about this project which utilizes the ethereum blockchain, which is decentralized and permissionless. The WWF partnered with ConsenSys and TraSeable to help deliver the fishing information to the Ethereum blockchain. The project, as well, looks to work with the Viant platform.

On the contrary, and without making a distinction between the blockchains being used, the article continues to name initiatives using blockchain for supply chain tracking, such as the IBM Food Trust and Oracle. These projects use permissioned blockchains, unlike ethereum where anyone can access the blockchain. While any blockchain is not completely immutable, it takes an much more time, effort, coordination, and funds to successfully wage a “51% attack” (obtaining control of over half the networks computing power) on a public blockchain. As well, a successful attack would damage the reputation of that blockchain so there is a low incentive considering the amount of effort and costs involved. A well-established blockchain, such as ethereum or bitcoin, are expected to handily resists any attacks. On the contrary, the effort involved in altering information in a private blockchain could be as simple as having high privileged access to the blockchain or as difficult as compromising one’s private keys.

The key point is that the source of immutability comes from different sources. For public blockchains, the ledgers immutability is inherently drawn from the technology. As the network grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to alter past blocks; meaning that mutability for a single block in the blockchain becomes more difficult with each additional block hashed together thereafter. The immutability of a private ledger, however, is not drawn from blockchain technology as a block at anypoint of the blockchain can be altered in seconds with a private key. Therefore, a permissioned blockchain’s level of immutability is subject to administrative oversight.

Ultimately, whether the blockchain is private or public, it can certainly be used for more ethical shopping. Both can provide shoppers with information that would allow them to make more ethical purchases. The issue, however, becomes how reliable the information is and how the blockchain is being used. In the case of permissionless blockchains, any information stored on the blockchain would require consensus or a 51% attack to change and would be evident to everyone as the blockchain is public. On the contrary, a block can be altered at anytime on a permissioned blockchain and have that change go unnoticed as the public does not have access to the ledger.