Jessi Baker is the Founder and CEO of Provenance, a software solution that empowers customers to shop in line with their values, by helping businesses to validate and amplify their sustainability credentials. We spoke to Jessi about what spurred her passion for supply chains, her solution for helping shoppers make more informed choices, and her personal journey as an entrepreneur.
Have you always been fascinated by supply chains?
I’ve had a long-term obsession with the creation of things. As a child, all my toys were in bits. If you gave me something, I wouldn’t want to play with it; I was obsessed with trying to take it apart and put it back together. In my teens, my parents ran a manufacturing business, so I got to see how things were made first-hand. Everyday items carry such rich stories, completely unknown to the majority of us. Learning this really spawned my interest in supply chains.
Can you share a story of an everyday product that has fascinated you?
After living in Indonesia, my cousin came to visit one Christmas. He’s very familiar with the local fishing communities; he’s a scuba diver and spends a lot of time in the sea. He showed me photos of the fishermen and recounted their personal stories – all the while looking at a can of tuna, the epicentre of our conversation.
“Everyday items carry such rich stories, completely unknown to the majority of us.”
There was a moment when I thought: does anyone consider this when they take a can of tuna off the shelf? That there’s a community of fishermen on a beautiful, remote island, each with their own incredible stories; the thousands of workers in a factory deboning and cooking; freezing and freight crossing the continent – all so we can buy this ridiculous, small can of tuna. Hearing about this was an enlightening moment for me.
What are the problems currently facing supply chains?
There’s a curtain between the reality of production and what we know when we buy a product. For example, when you buy a can of tuna, you likely won’t know how or where it was caught, or how much the fishermen were paid.
It wasn’t that long ago when the products we bought were created by our next-door neighbours. But decades of globalisation, and advertising, have disconnected us from the realities of production: factories, farms and fisheries pouring dangerous chemicals into the ocean; employees chained to machines working unethical hours. Meanwhile, business has made us feel really comfortable with the idea of buying lots of stuff.
I’m paralysed whenever I try to buy something because I know so much of what is going on behind the scenes. I’ve seen first-hand the reality of the products we buy, spoken to the workers, seen the chemicals flowing from the pipes. Seeing it first-hand made it unforgettable.
I want to feel good about my purchases, not just because they make life more enjoyable, but because I know that my money is going to businesses that truly deserve it – the ones that I can say with certainty are working to positively impact people and planet.
What solution did you come up with to help people make more informed choices about the things they buy?
Provenance came from a personal frustration that I couldn’t find out more about the products I was buying every day. I realised I could use technology to empower people to shop with their values, by helping businesses be transparent about their sustainability and impact.
“There’s a community of fishermen on a beautiful, remote island, each with their own incredible stories; the thousands of workers in a factory deboning and cooking; freezing and freight crossing the continent – all so we can buy this ridiculous, small can of tuna.”
We build on the shoulders of giants: our software uses data that already exists from the certifications and NGOs on the ground, in fields and factories, who are doing the work to evidence sustainability claims. We stitch this data together in a trustworthy, accessible and standardised format to be shared further down the supply chain to shoppers.
We hope to be an ally for shoppers, cutting through the greenwash so they can make sustainable shopping choices with confidence.
When are shoppers most influenced to shop with their values?
Our focus is specifically on e-commerce, as we’ve found that people are more willing to do the research and switch to sustain able brands when they have the information at their fingertips. Think about when you go shopping in person: there’s so much cognitive overload – we find it’s much harder to nudge someone there.
We present to shoppers sustainability and impact claims that have been evidenced or verified – for example, whether an item is Fairtrade, vegan, recyclable or comes from a female-owned business – either via multi-brand online retailers, our own brand directory where we house hundreds of brands that shoppers can trust, or straight from the source on brands’ websites.
Does the responsibility for sustainable consumption lie with shoppers? Or is it for business and regulation to take the helm?
The reality of climate change is starting to hit home with people. Fires and floods are in the news and we can’t only point our fingers at oil companies; it’s also our own responsibility. Fortunately, the increased buying power of generation Z has made it very clear that sustainability and impact is important to them.
However, regulation has actually been a major tailwind for Provenance. Until recently, companies could make green claims with little accountability, but now we have global regulators that crack down on greenwashing. Not every individual is going to care about the impact of the products they buy, but regulation means that that won’t matter – it’s a legal requirement for businesses to prove their sustainability claims.
But business has always seemed like the best vehicle for me to make the largest impact. The largest companies are creating the largest impact, for good or bad. It proved the obvious vehicle to generate mass change and really move the needle.
“The largest companies are creating the largest impact, for good or bad. It proved the obvious vehicle to generate mass change and really move the needle.”
You’ve seen the sustainability landscape change throughout your career. Can you talk about your journey being an entrepreneur in this space?
I must admit that I’m a reluctant entrepreneur. I don’t think I ever really wanted to start a business – it was initially a side project that I was working on alongside a PhD, the first version built solely by me. I gave up at least 20 times at this stage. But I always came back to it – tinker ing away, because I’m just so deeply passion ate about solving this problem.
At the beginning lots of people said to me that it would never work, because people will never care about the reality behind the products they buy. Indeed, in the early days I spent a lot of time trying to educate businesses on how this could be an opportunity for them, and that there were shoppers who cared about the supply chains of products.
Now, with regulation in place, it’s no longer optional for businesses to prove their sustainability claims. So for all the effort that businesses make in being compliant, we say to them: why not make it part of your brand story, and share that with your customers?
What would be your advice to your younger self if you were to start your journey with Provenance all over again?
“Before diving head first into fixing a problem, take some time to thoughtfully map the market, and see if there are businesses or projects that already exist that you can bring your talent to, to help accelerate them.” I like to think I did this before starting Provenance, but there are so many organisations that I could have collaborated with sooner.
“Business has made us feel really comfortable with the idea of buying lots of stuff.”
I’d also emphasise that having the ambition and vision to be part of a solution is powerful. So many people don’t think they can make a difference from their actions, but in this hyper-interconnected world, it’s incredible what one person can achieve.
What is the next step in the journey of helping people to shop with their values?
I’d like for people to be able to shop with their values across all budgets; a lot of sustainable products at the moment are expensive and so it becomes a question of price versus impact. However, the more mainstream this gets, the less that will be the case.
Ultimately, I’m driven by the hope that everyone will want to support businesses that are a force for good and buy products that are created in a way that has a positive impact on people and planet. But it’s about making it easy for people to buy into this.