Circularise: Sustainability Through Supply Chain Transparency
Driven by the dovetailing demands of conscious consumers, tighter regulations and internal sustainability goals, companies of all kinds are striving to make their supply chains more transparent.
Transparency is a noble goal, but there are significant business risks to sharing private data. Companies are understandably reluctant to share their secrets with third parties. As a result, everyone has remained more or less in the dark about the human and environmental impact of the products they manufacture, process, consume or dispose of.
For the next installment of our podcast on the circular economy, we talked to Jordi de Vos of Circularise, a tech company that works with corporates, governments and research institutes to bring transparency and traceability to global supply chains while protecting private data. The decentralised platform allows stakeholders to exchange information anonymously, while controlling how much they disclose and to whom.
Any participant in a value chain can use Circularise to ask specific questions about a product or material and get relevant answers without seeing all the data. This is achieved through a cryptographic protocol called zero-knowledge proof (ZKP). Jordi refers to the platform as an “information highway”, because Circularise provides a protocol for sharing proofs and information but does not dictate what information should be shared. “You can confidently share parts of the information that you know will help at a later stage, but you also still keep your own position a secret,” he says.
Here’s an example: A company has a bill of material – a detailed document that outlines the contents of a product. Rather than sharing that document, the company uses Circularise to disclose that the product contains a certain material. For a flat screen television, for example, a recycler can then ascertain whether there's mercury inside, in order to dispose of it without contaminating the environment.
So how can the recycler trust the manufacturer’s claim? The technology combines blockchain and something called a digital twin, which is a digital replica of a real-world entity. “It starts with the material manufacturer,” explains Jordi. “At that stage, they have a certain product and documentation, which they can enter into our system. That’s the digital twin. So if you have, say, a 10,000 kilo bag of resin, then you also get a digital 10,000 kilo bag of resin. Now the blockchain part really kicks in: In the past, if I had a PDF that stated something, I could send it to you, but I could send it to someone else as well. With blockchain, you're unable to do that.”
Once the digital twin is created, it can be shipped and altered alongside the physical item at every stage of the supply chain. Each time a physical material is combined with another, it can be updated digitally, until you reach the point of sale. Circular’s combination of blockchain and ZKP strengthens the link between the physical and digital in unprecedented ways, so that the concept of trust is replaced by proof. The proof, however, can be stripped of sensitive data and thus contain only specific answers to issues relevant to the stakeholder in question.
As well as boosting sustainability through more efficient recycling, and encouraging ethical labour practices through accountability, the platform also benefits manufacturers of eco-friendly materials. Recycled plastics, for example, are currently much more valuable than so-called virgin plastics, but it’s hard to prove a company is telling the truth about whether their plastic is actually recycled. With Circularise, the truly sustainable producers can provide proof of their value, and this proof can be presented to other stakeholders (such as consumers, regulators or recyclers) along the supply chain.
Circularise is making the core of their technology open source, so that anyone can use it as a foundation to build upon and solve different or emerging challenges. “The world is changing and people are not accepting the status quo,” Jordi says. “With Google and Facebook there's basically a giant lock-in, and people are getting more and more receptive to the idea of going back to the old style of internet, where everything was open, everything was shared.”
But the most exciting part of his venture is not so much the technology as the potential it has to boost businesses’ bottom line while incentivising sustainable practices. “Of course, the societal importance was always there. But now I can very confidently talk to pretty much any business and show them that it makes financial sense to start moving towards a circular economy.”