Traceability System Element Function: Tracking Movement and Transactions of Products Throughout Supply Chain

Product Tracking: The Basics

Companies already track the movement of products through their supply chains for all kinds of reasons: food companies track the movement of ingredients to ensure food safety; automotive companies track the movement of products to ensure consumer safety; companies in all sectors track the movement of products to enable forecasting and to generally optimize supply chain efficiency. The business community’s longstanding familiarity with product tracking for these purposes is a jumping off point for harnessing product tracking to combat labor abuses. 

Most methods of tracking products for any purpose allow companies to make claims relevant to the Chain of Custody of goods in their supply chain. Chain of Custody refers to a record of the series of supply chain entities that had physical possession of a product or materials. (Note that one form of product tracking, certificate trading, does not support Chain of Custody claims. However, authoritative reports in the field such as A Guide to Traceability by the United Nations Global Compact and BSR, and ISEAL’s Chain of custody Models and Definitions report include certificate trading under analyses of the product tracking field.) This focus on the Chain of Custody of goods and materials differentiates Product Tracking from efforts like supply chain mapping that identify and enable engagement with supply chain entities, separate from the movement of any specific good or batch of goods. 

The multiple methods that fulfill a product tracking functional element vary in terms of requirements to segregate batches of product, the Chain of Custody requirements, and the resulting claims that can be made.

Tracking the Movement of Product Through Supply Chain Tiers & Labor Due Diligence

How can tracking the movement of products help combat forced labor and child labor in supply chains? 

All approaches for tracking the movement of product can help move companies move towards more ethical supply chain practicesMany approaches to tracking products that focus on sustainability specifically are typically centered around tracking and documenting the Chain of Custody of goods or materials as they are produced, aggregated, or transformed by supplier chain entities that can demonstrate compliance with social responsibility or other sustainability standards, often under the umbrella of a certification scheme. (For more examples on how certification schemes support traceability in a range of sectors, see Examples page). Participation in traceability efforts with a robust labor rights standard can support improved conditions for workers at certified worksites and the market incentives for producers to continue producing socially responsible goods.

The market support and procurement of certified goods CAN itself drive improvements in labor rights for workers at certified worksites, but product certification does not inherently combat or allow a company to make claims about combatting child labor or forced labor. When implementing a product tracking approach that is centered around maintaining a Chain of Custody for a certified product, it is critical to understand the degree to which the certification scheme addresses labor and human rights, including a specific assessment of the degree to which issues such as child labor and forced labor are managed. For more information on assessing the inclusion of serious labor rights risks in certification schemes, see: Responsible Sourcing Tool’s Evaluating the Anti-Trafficking Requirements of Voluntary Sustainability Systems.

In supply chain contexts where certification schemes that adequately address forced labor and child labor are not available or feasible, it is still possible to implement product tracking approaches that support labor rights due diligence goals. For example, tracking products for the purposes of consumer safety, quality control, or fraud control can be leveraged to surface information about the identities of supply chain entities taking possession of goods and materials and the relationships between these entities. These approaches also typically require commercial procurement teams to build relationships with suppliers to implement these systems – the relationships stemming from this engagement are powerful resources for driving future due diligence and compliance efforts.