This week I attended the “Coffee, Cocktails, & VR” event at Ada’s Technical Books, which featured Onda Origins and their cutting-edge take on ethical coffee sourcing – they use blockchain to reward transactional transparency. This means using an online ledger to track who buys coffee at every step of the production chain.
You may have heard of blockchain. For me, it’s something that I’m just starting to get more involved with, and a lot of the specifics aren’t clear to me just yet. However, the main concept is that blockchain is an online public ledger, or a big list of who is spending what online. Blockchain is what makes cryptocurrencies like bitcoin work, ensuring (among other things) that people can’t double-spend their money.
My interest in bitcoin and blockchain came from a recent Google search of “best freelancing jobs”. One of the top in-demand skills from freelancers (according to Business Insider) was expertise in blockchain, which pushed me to bit the bullet and to dip my toes into the world of cryptocurrency. For the newbies out there, cryptocurrency is just a fancy way of saying “virtual money”, bitcoin being one of the many fledging currencies aiming to gain footing and credibility on the global online market. The terrain is new and very volatile, and since buying my first increments of bitcoin, I have lost over 25% of my investment. As with any kind of investing, there are horror stories everywhere. Recently I saw a NYTimes headline that highlighted the story of a young man who lost $100k in his crypto investments, essentially decimating his savings.
This volatility is an accepted risk of cryptocurrency, and I am often reminded that any money put into crypto should be money that I am prepared to lose. Blockchain, on the otherhand, is more of the inner-workings of bitcoin. Learning blockchain is sort of like learning how the future of banking will work. Sort of.
When talking to the folks at Onda Origins, I learned about the problems they are trying so solve. There are reportedly ten steps in the coffee production chain, and Onda is attempting to verify each step of this chain. One woman explained it like this – in the world of lumber, it is often hard to confirm where the wood is coming from. Since illegal tree-cutting happens so often, businesses find it hard to verify whether or not their wood has been sourced within the bounds of the law or not. By providing a verification system that rewards businesses that are transparent in their practices (e.g. can prove through a ledger that their practices were legitimate), we as the consumer can feel better about spending our money with that company. So with coffee, Onda aims to support farmers by giving them the tools to show customers across the globe where the coffee is coming from.
The details are still muddy to me. Does purchasing coffee from Onda mean that I am supporting coffee farmers more than if I bought a coffee at my favorite local cafe? Can I myself take a look into the ledger and make sense of the transaction data? Can people still game the system and maybe conduct shady practices inside and out of the blockchain? I don’t know the answers and I’m doing what reading and studying I can to learn more. But the concept sticks with me. I’d love to buy from companies that can prove in a very public way that they are ethical from top to bottom.
Onda tells us that they aren’t the only coffee company dabbling in blockchain, which makes the business seem like a little bit of a race when one of the founders, Scott Tupper, tells us about it. Several different blockchain services are jockeying for Onda to use their platforms, and during this time Scott finds himself having to keep a level head and seeking consult his advisers to make strategic decisions for the future of the company. The blockchain verification also is not complete in some regards, so verification sometimes can get a little hands-on. As I hear more of the details about the company, it becomes how much of a start-up Onda actually is. There is a lot more to be done, on their side and also mine, as a consumer.
I often think about how each of our purchases, every day, is a vote for the things we value. Many of my friends do their best to purchase from ethical companies. Whether or not these companies simply brand themselves as ethical or actually practice what they preach is almost impossible for me to discern. Finding the details of where my shoes are coming from or even where the wood in my desk is sourced takes a staggering amount of time and effort. In the end, it almost seems pointless to dig for the truth, and I end up having to take companies for their word that they are treating the environment and their employees well. However, if blockchain and other emerging technology makes this process easier, that would be a game-changer for businesses that have to compete with giants who win customers over convenience rather than ethics.