Online Tool Reveals Sources of Consumer Goods

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Tompkins Weekly  11-25-13

By Wendy Skinner

Consumers increasingly want to know more about the goods they buy: where they come from, what they are made of, and who made them. For most consumer items, that knowledge is almost impossible to acquire in any detail that might influence a buying decision.

Many retailers have no idea of the sources of their merchandise beyond the broadest of identifiers, such as “polyester” and “made in China.” Their wholesalers may be equally in the dark– and often even the companies that finish or package the products don’t have a clear understanding of their sources. They depend on suppliers who depend on other suppliers, going all the way back to the raw materials in a complex set of connections that may stretch around the world.

Some companies and sellers would prefer to keep information about their sources as shadowy as possible, but many are realizing that transparency is essential to their integrity and profitability. The challenge has been how to untangle the web of suppliers so that both consumers and makers can know more about where stuff comes from.

An online tool developed at the MIT Media Lab is offering a solution. Sourcemap ( allows users to document and track supply chains. Using crowdsourcing to gather data, Sourcemap can be described as a social network for stuff.

One example of a product listed on Sourcemap is a Bic pen manufactured near Paris for marketing in the UK. Dots on a map of the world are connected by lines to show the source paths. The two furthest links are crude oil from Saudi Arabia and tungsten from a coastal province of China. Nearer sources provide inks, metals, and plastics needed to produce the pens. The text accompanying the map notes that this is just a start on the materials and locations that actually go into the manufacturing of this one simple product.

Companies use Sourcemap to show strengths and weaknesses in supply chains. Disruptions due to mega-storms and disasters are a huge threat to companies with concatenated sources. Because they lack information about their supply chains, they may not know why a particular stream of materials has ceased until their bottom line starts to drop. With better information about supply chains, companies can create alternate or redundant streams to avoid interruptions in their business.

This fine-tuning of global sourcing can be seen as strictly profit-driven. Improving supply chains does not necessarily lead to more sustainable practices, but it can. A group of independent breweries in Scotland accomplished both in one action. Each small brewery was transporting their hops from a distributor in the south of England. Using information gathered by Sourcemap, an entrepreneur was inspired to set up a hops distribution center much nearer to the buyers, reducing everyone’s transportation costs and environmental impact.

Sourcemap is a tool, not an advocate for ethical manufacturing or sourcing, but it can be used to detect and separate out the good from the bad and the ugly. The online platform connects small and large entities, and makes it possible for a CEO at a clothing distributor in New Jersey to talk to a small farmer in India about how he grows his cotton crop. Theoretically, this kind of personal connection could shed light on unfair and unhealthy practices.

Posting information on Sourcemap is voluntary. You can list your company today, for free. Individuals can search for products or companies, for free. Not all of the information is complete, but more can be added as new facts are uncovered. Perhaps most important is that Sourcemap supports the consumer trend toward wanting to know more about what we buy. Also, they’re hiring.
Wendy Skinner is a member of the core team of volunteers who put together the Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair and the founder and manager of Sew Green in Ithaca.


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