Can the next barcode bring real trust and transparency to what we buy?

The inventors of the original UPC code are piloting collaborative new standards for how modern shoppers understand product sourcing

By | 6 minute read | June 28, 2021

New technologies like cloud and blockchain could help consumers more easily gain information about the products they buy.

In Troy, Ohio, 47 years ago, a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum made history. The distinctive yellow-and-red packaging also included some equally distinctive and wholly unique black stripes: the world’s first barcode.

As it was scanned through the checkout at a local grocery store, that gum marked a defining moment for data capture and collaboration. The barcode not only sped up grocery store lines and transformed supply chains for retailers, manufacturers and suppliers forever—it was also a historic coming together of these groups to change the way stores are stocked and operated.

Today, a new challenge has emerged. These iconic labels vie for space on packaging and tags with a riot of badges, certifications, seals and codes. Each one is meant to convey a product’s ingredients, sourcing, sustainability, healthiness, maybe even it genetic or scientific composition. However, this barrage of information often leaves consumers more confused than confident in making purchases.

To cut through the consumer clutter, GS1, the same global standards body that helped launch the barcode, is working on a pilot that could pave the way for a new age in track-and-trace product labeling built on close-knit industry standards.

“The barcode has all the information you need, it’s just about digitally linking all the additional layers of data, which is what organizations are just starting to think through,” Tom Woodham, the supply chain and procurement practice leader at IBM Services in the United Kingdom, told Industrious in an interview. He has been working with GS1 on its pilot.

The focus now is on building a coalition that could create and support the new transparency standards. What comes next will be up to these enterprises, though Woodham points out that promising options are already becoming quite common. The past year has made diners quite comfortable pointing their phones at table-side codes at restaurants that link to the menu. Imagine something similar taking place in the grocery aisle or shop floor.

This is more than a labeling challenge, though. As supply chains have grown larger, more complex and globe-spanning, it will take more collaboration than ever for companies to come together on a new set of standards. Fortunately, emerging technologies like cloud and blockchain also make it easier than ever for that collaboration to happen.

couple shopping confused by labels

As consumers grow increasingly focused on the sourcing of their products, packaging has taken on new importance, and complexity.

After all, the barcode may have seemed like a miracle of elegance and simplicity. Yet it took US-based grocery and fast-food companies more than a decade of debates and design for the barcode come to life.

“No one entity can solve farm-to-fork traceability on their own,” GS1 UK CEO Anne Godfrey said during a panel at the Consumer Goods Forum Global Summit this month. She has used her first year in post to understand how to harness the knowledge of the global team based in 116 countries and supporting 2 million members in retail, manufacturing, logistics and healthcare.

Consumer demands

The speed of change is accelerating because customers are demanding it. Enterprises, their products and packaging need to be able to keep up in a digital age.

Transparency, whether around sustainability or ethics, now tops many shopping lists. Some 40 percent of consumers today say they are purpose driven when it comes to the products they buy, according to research by the IBM Institute for Business Value. Meanwhile, the researchers found consumers are skeptical of claims made by brands. For example, only one in four consumers say they trust the food supply chain.

Yet if technology like cloud and blockchain can enable more reliable products and packaging, brands may be able to win back some of that trust.

“Whether it’s about collaborating for healthier lives, driving sustainable supply chains or addressing waste in our industries, the need for a coalition of action is essential,” Luq Niazi, IBM global managing director for consumer industries said at the Consumer Goods Forum Global Summit, speaking alongside Godfrey.

Developing the technology architecture is only one piece of the puzzle. As with the original barcodes, collaboration on standards and governance is equally critical when it comes to developing the next generation of standardized labels.

“If we are to keep consumers safe and well,” Godfrey said, “we, GS1, and our members, need to collaborate, be they manufacturers or retailers, to make sure that there are agreed frameworks within which we can all work. We facilitate collaboration between otherwise competitive businesses by ensuring we are all focused on delivering trusted data that informs and protects consumers.”

grocery store organic aisle

Consumers want simple, direct product information—but not so simple that important info is left out.

Creating a collaborative platform that underpins a smarter, standardized and verifiable tracking system will require considerable, though achievable efforts. As before, technology makes it all possible.

Demand from above and below

Recently, GS1 UK, along with IBM, carried out a joint study that examines how to extend traceability across the value chain. The study’s findings demonstrated that a common information architecture and governance model—just like the barcode before it—would help facilitate industry-wide collaboration. Such an approach not only allows greater synchronization between brands and retailers but also helps build trust with consumers in what they’re shopping for.

“We see a food supply system tipping point happening in the UK,” Woodham said. “Brexit has had a massive impact. You’ve got evolving tariffs, trade deals, and I think all of that will challenge existing supply chains. COVID has also really changed our shopping habits and demand patterns.”

Part of the focus for GS1 UK members and consumers is a need to respond to current and future regulation around food. For example, consider Natasha’s Law, which comes into effect in October 2021 in the UK and will require food businesses to provide full ingredient lists and allergen labelling on foods packaged for sale on the premises.

New digitally connected industry standards could help ease the burden on small businesses to comply while offering greater clarity to consumers. And the integration of technology like blockchain would only further build confidence that what’s on the outside of the label really communicates what’s on the inside. Supply chain tracking becomes a consumer interest, not just an operational one.

Building Barcode 2.0

Since that world-changing packet of Wrigley’s gum was scanned in 1974—and has since made its way into a display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.—other identification technologies have also come along, such as QR coding and radio frequency identification, or RFID. Yet, the linear GS1 barcode, created by IBM engineer George Lauer, is still scanned 6 billion times each day. (Read more about IBM’s role in the history of barcodes here.)

Wrigley's Juicy Fruit 10-pack from the Smithsonian

The original 10-pack of gum, now in the collection of the Smithsonian. (Courtesy The Smithsonian Institution)

Godfrey points to the historic COVID-19 vaccine rollout as an example of how a new transparency platform could be rolled out. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see that same visibility, from the manufacturer to the end user, being applied to food?” she said.

Part of the success of the vaccine rollout rested on the incredible global cooperation that took place around shared data. Blockchain and cloud technologies were at the heart of creating a trustworthy supply chain for worldwide vaccine distribution. The same technologies could help transform the food supply chain as well.

Blockchain, for instance, allows logging each data point in a shared ledger so food producers, retailers and customers can all share transparency. This can be seen in action with platforms, such as IBM Food Trust, which enables multiple stakeholders to collaborate. It’s already at work in the Norwegian seafood industry and sustainable shrimp in Ecuador.

In an increasingly globalized economy, there’s more concern than ever about the goods that we put into, onto and around our bodies. Fortunately, the technology to create trusted sources of data, transparency and interoperability across systems is already here.

“Our ambition—and it is ambitious,” Godfrey said, “is to position GS1 and our members as the authority on traceability, sustainability, and most importantly, demonstrate how we use our standards to keep the public safe and well.”