Jessi Baker MBE explains how she is bringing transparency to supply chains
In a world in which transparency is often elusive, Jessi Baker MBE is leading the charge for clarity with Provenance. Lysanne Currie hears about her mission to create a supply chain for a new world
Jessi Baker is standing in a new house filled with dozens of unpacked bags and boxes – the consequence of a sudden move to New York with her husband and son. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” she says. But a necessary one; although Provenance, the software company she co-founded in 2013, is based in Old Street, in east London, some 40% of its customers are in the US. “We’ve never had any boots on the ground here,” she says. “So I’m really trying to expand the business while looking for the person who’s going to run Provenance in the US.”
It’s fitting that she’s in the process of unpacking as that’s essentially what Provence does: her organisation employs cutting-edge technology to help businesses unpack details about the individuals, locations and materials connected to their products. By using blockchain (“essentially a fancy database”), it’s able to look into a company’s supply chain to check its validity and its impact, and even to find out exactly who it’s buying from, in the interests of full transparency. As Jessi told an audience in Barcelona in 2018: “Many organisations don’t even know who created the ingredients that go into their finished food product.”
In fact, Jessi argues that the only way to truly engage with the reality of a supply chain is to visit the human beings who work in one – she’s personally travelled all over the world to do just that. “I think people are starting to wake up to the fact that there are slaves working for us. It’s unjust and unfair... I’ve seen people chained to machines, working insane hours. And they’re just the ‘good factories’ you’re allowed to see,” she says.
Today, Provenance employs 23 people and has partnered with consumer goods giant Unilever. The start-up also secured £1.7m from investors, led by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s family office. Naturally, it also holds a B Corp certification, signifying its adherence to stringent ethical standards. “We’re very much a part of that movement,” says Jessi.
Moment of clarity
Jessi, 39, was brought up in north London by her documentary-maker dad and “conscious consumer” mum. When she was a child, her floor was covered in toys, “but they’d all be in bits”: from an early age she had a fascination with learning how things were made and how they worked. Perhaps inevitably, she gained a master’s in engineering at Cambridge University and another in design from the Royal College of Art. Her digital design strategy portfolio includes work for Adidas, the Guggenheim Museum, British Airways and Louis Vuitton, as well as rapper Will.i.am.
Following university, with a degree latterly focused on the fashion industry, she moved to LA to work for American Apparel. It was while pivoting to a digital design career that she first heard about bitcoin – and saw how the blockchain technology underpinning it could help businesses make their supply chains more transparent to consumers. “I’m a bit of a supply-chain geek. I like to know more about products and where they come from,” she says.
An early epiphany came one Christmas, when her scuba-diver cousin shared photos and stories of Indonesian fishermen. “I just thought, this is so crazy,” she recalls. “Does anyone ever think when they take a can of tuna off the shelf that there’s a whole community of fishermen based in a remote, beautiful island in Indonesia who have actually hand-caught all of these fish?” It made her realise how globalisation has disconnected us from the production process, and started her thinking about the origin of the products we consume.
Yet, despite her digital savvy, Jessi realised she was still struggling to obtain information about why she should trust any given product. As she told The Times in 2019: “I was really surprised it was so hard to find out about brands and products and where they come from.”
And so, in 2017, Provenance was born. She built the first version herself, initially, as a little side-project: “I don’t think I ever really wanted to start a business, I just wanted to solve a problem – and I still just want to solve the problem. That’s actually all I’m really motivated to do.”
Visions of change
Today, Jessi’s company collaborates with businesses ranging from ecommerce company THG to Tideford Organics, a brand specialising in healthy soups and sauces. “We are getting all the data together to make what brands do more transparent,” Jessi told The Times. “It reinforces the connection between people who create products and those who consume them.” This isn’t just about fraud, it’s also about safety. But more importantly, it’s about sustainability. “How on earth can we know the impact of our food both on society and the environment if we don’t even know where it comes from?” she says.
In this, Jessi has clearly been a pioneer: latterly companies have reached towards broader goals than profit-making, driven by demands from employees, shareholders and regulators for greater accountability. “There’s a huge amount of money being poured into investments in the supply chain by brands,” she says, a step-change she ascribes to factors from Covid (“a real empathy injection… people realised how vulnerable we are as a society”) to climate change, and consumer behaviour. “Particularly Gen Z, who time and again are supporting brands with purpose,” she says. “Brands that are sustainably marketed are growing three times faster than those that aren’t.”
Of course, all this represents something of a sea change from Provenance’s very early days, she says: “[Back then] I was having meetings with really senior people in consumer goods brands, and I was talking about transparency, and some of them thought I meant see-through products made of glass!”
On the downside, more awareness has also led to frantic greenwashing from some unscrupulous outfits. According to the Competition and Markets Authority, some 40% of sustainability claims in the market are misleading. Historically many companies have been able to do this almost with impunity. But Jessi is confident the tide is turning. “It’s been good for marketers to greenwash because they’ve grown sales, and there hasn’t really been the sort of regulatory pressure to call it out. But if it gets found out, you can be fined up to 4% of sales, and you’re likely to have a social media backlash,” she says.
Pressure to get this right has also been a real driver for Provenance. “If you’re a smart, future-facing marketeer, you realise you can’t risk the brand on getting this wrong,” says Jessi. “So, we’re well positioned to help brands comply with the new regulations, and this huge opportunity.”
In 2019, Jessi was awarded an MBE for her services to global supply chains. And the coming year promises exciting developments for Provenance too. “We’ve signed up some very large multi-brand retailers, so in 2024 you’ll see us on the high street, and in mainstream retail outlets,” she says. “It’s a huge step into making sustainability mainstream and getting rid of greenwashing. We’re also embracing all the cool new AI tools. I’m really excited that we can help brand marketeers by giving them the ally they need.”
So what advice can the leader Business Insider called “one of the UK’s coolest female start-up founders” pass on to budding sustainability trailblazers? “I have this quote that I use a lot,” says Jessi. “It’s from a very weird TV show called The Mighty Boosh. And the quote is: ‘It’s a fence – no, it’s soft.’” Meaning? “You will see fences everywhere. You will see barriers. But remember that most defences are soft, you can actually overcome things that you think are barriers, you can change minds. Just because something is like it is doesn’t mean it can’t change. Things change.”