New tech on the block: 8 ways businesses are using blockchain to drive sustainability
As the fruits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution continue to change how businesses operate within society, edie has rounded up eight of the most notable ways companies have been using blockchain to spur their sustainability actions.
Alongside artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain has proven to be a hot technology topic in the media over the past 12 months, as our physical world continues to blur with the virtual.
Acting as a digital ledger, blockchain creates a verifiable audit trail that can be used for any transaction, and this is where its potential impact on sustainability comes in. Blockchain can be implemented – and in some cases, is already used – across numerous environmental projects, from forestry and fisheries to carbon accounting and energy.
Indeed, PwC has highlighted blockchain as one of the ‘essential eight’ technologies that will play a crucial role in tackling climate issues. And the technology as has also been heralded as a transformative way to digitally track supply chain activity by techUK.
While a blockchain boon could be on the horizon, the technology is still in the early stages of implementation and recognition, with edie’s own research finding that only one of 200 sustainability and energy professionals had already applied blockchain applications within their business, as of October 2017.
So, with technology continuing to garner more interest among the sustainable business community, edie has rounded up eight ways that corporates, start-ups and local authorities are now using blockchain to achieve a sustainable future.
In what is possibly the most consumer-facing use of blockchain listed in this round-up, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s is currently piloting a carbon-offsetting scheme that enables customers to purchase carbon credits that help with global anti-deforestation initiatives.
The certified B Corp, which is owned by consumer goods giant Unilever, is trialling a blockchain-enabled retail platform developed by non-profit Poseidon Foundation at its Wardour Street Scoop Shop in London. Ben & Jerry's will pay 1p to counterbalance the emissions of the product, and customers can then donate an extra penny in exchange for carbon credits to double the impact.
Ben & Jerry’s head of social mission Europe, Chris Gale, said this blockchain technology application had spurred the protection of 1,000 trees in the first three weeks of the trial as it offers an approach that “connects fans to climate action”.
Also partnering with the Poseidon Foundation for a blockchain trial is Liverpool City Council (LCC), which hopes that using the platform will enable the local authority to offset more than 110% of its carbon emissions by the end of 2018, before the entire city pushes towards a similar aim for 2020.
This year saw the UK’s first physical blockchain energy transaction successfully completed in London, enabling housing estate residents to benefit from renewable energy.
The trade - carried out by machine learning start-up Verv - saw 1kWh of energy sent from an array of solar panels on one of Hackney’s Banister House Estate’s roofs to another block within the complex.
The trial, which has received funding from InnovateUK, is currently in phase one and is underway in collaboration with not-for-profit Repowering London. Verv plans to use the results of the trial to roll out more energy trading communities across the UK.
A virtual energy marketplace
Energy solutions firm Centrica is currently examining how blockchain can assist with multi-party peer-to-peer energy trading, using a trial amongst 200 businesses and residential participants in Cornwall to measure its success.
The technology is being utilised as part of a £19m Local Energy Market (LEM) programme in Cornwall which creates a testing ground for an array of disruptive energy innovations, including flexible demand, renewable generation and storage across both the domestic and business sectors.
The blockchain technology will record peer-to-peer energy transactions in the LEM. It will then give companies the chance to place energy orders that can generate the best economic value, unlike traditional fixed-price contracts.
New maritime business models
Following the International Maritime Organisation’s pledge to halve carbon emissions from the maritime shipping sector by 2020, the onus is now on big-name stakeholders in the industry to champion sustainability.
This month saw a string of such organisations– including Lloyd’s Register, BIMCO and Precious Shipping – launch a partnership with Maritime Blockchain Labs (MBL) that will see the corporates use innovative blockchain technology to improve the traceability of shipping fuels in their supply chains.
The technology solution helps to give these companies an “efficient, tamper-resistant and auditable” chain of custody for the fuels.
Supply chain sustainability
Away from climate and carbon challenges, global brands Unilever and Sainsbury's are currently investigating how blockchain can financially reward sustainable tea farming practices.
The two companies have partnered with banking firms Barclays, BNP Paribas and Standard Chartered to trial a blockchain system that records price, produce and production information on tea farmers in Malawi. It is hoped the technology can be used to reward and incentivise farmers, by offering preferential terms or access to credit to farmers that are implementing sustainable practices.
The year-long trial could reach more than 10,000 Malawian tea farmers and, if successful, could benefit 1.5 billion families that depend on small-scale farming across the globe. The partners hope the trial will also create better banking oversight on compliance with the Modern Slavery Act.
Enhancing food traceability
One of the largest trials of blockchain technology to have been undertaken by corporates so far is that of Nestlé, Unilever and Walmart. The trio is using an audit trail to explore how blockchain technology could trace and therefore minimise food contamination in global supply chains.
The businesses, which are working with IBM on the project, believe that blockchain has the potential to provide trusted and specific information on the origin and state of food.
It can currently take weeks to identify a precise point of contamination – resulting in further illness, lost revenue and wasted products – but the technology could speed up this process, reducing the number of people who die each year as a result of eating contaminated products.
With public and media attention currently fixed on the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic humanity has produced over the past 70 years, a string of big-name companies across the retail, hospitality and leisure and food and drink sectors have recently announced plans to phase out single-use plastics in their operations, while other corporations have moved to repurpose recycled plastic for new packaging or products.
One potential solution to the plastics problem comes from the Blockchain Development Company (BCDC), which has created a platform enabling companies and families to calculate and offset annual "plastic footprints" by purchasing credits that support global projects that tackle plastic pollution.
Through the scheme, which launched last year, businesses can purchase BCDC Tokens to offset the amount of plastic consumed. Token purchases will be recorded on an immutable blockchain platform, meaning that stakeholders can ensure the tokens are spent on projects which divert plastics from landfill.
Autonomous vehicle networks
Despite scepticism remaining around autonomous vehicles, nations and automakers alike have made moves to capture the financial and environmental benefits of this rapidly growing market in recent times.
This week saw a global consortium of automakers, including BMW, Ford and Renault, announce that they will work with blockchain start-up The DAV Foundation in a bid to make networks of fully-autonomous electric vehicles (EVs) commonplace by 2021.
The partnership will see The DAV Foundation work with the non-profit Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative (MOBI), which is working to explore the benefits of utilising new digital technologies in the mobility sector.
During the trial, blockchain will help to create an audit trail that can be used for any transaction, allowing networks of vehicles to locate, communicate and transact with each other. Transactions which will be trialled through the partnership include those for car and ride sharing, charging stations, autonomous payments, pay-as-you-use insurance and vehicle taxes.