The Complete Guide to Traceability

Why product traceability is crucial for building consumer trust.

Today's consumers demand to know more about the products they use. Product traceability empowers businesses to connect with consumers, provide a higher quality product and improve organizational practices to meet that demand for transparency and sustainability.

What is Product Traceability?

Product traceability is the ability to track the entire lifecycle of products, from sourcing and raw materials to manufacturing and distribution, and then on to consumers and beyond.

Traceability concerns more than just location. It also includes factors such as inspection notes, batch numbers, manufacturing and factory data, destination of the product, and how the product is used by consumers.

There are many different kinds of tracing, but two main categories are downstream tracing and upstream tracing.

Upstream and Downstream Tracing

The Three Pillars of Sustainability
  • Downstream tracing is tracing along the supply chain from sourcing through manufacturing, retail, sale and consumer use. It’s often done on the back end by companies.

  • Upstream tracing is the opposite: tracing from the consumer to retail to manufacturing. It’s done most popularly in cases of recalls, but also by consumers to learn more about the products they own.

How Does Traceability Work?

Technology can help automate traceability. When it comes to traceability in manufacturing, barcodes, QR codes and scanners are the most widely used form of tracing. These can be used at every step of the manufacturing process, and often include dates, time stamps and location to help track parts and supplies.

Software can help track products as well. Simple software like spreadsheets can help with basic tracking, but programs specifically geared towards traceability such as Tulip or Blue Bite can help document the tracking of parts, products, sourcing or maintenance, or provide a consumer interface and user experience centered around traceability.

Why is downstream tracing important?

Traceability before the sale: Why this is important to brands and consumers

Supply chain traceability often refers to downstream tracing, or tracing following the linear progression from manufacturing to retail. This type of traceability is often approached from the producer or business perspective. Traceability is important for more than just following compliance regulations or easing stress in case of a recall. Manufacturers in many different fields can benefit from tracking the parts and origins of a product.

  • Safety. Product traceability can be important for safety reasons. Recalls for defective and potentially hazardous products is the most apparent safety concern. Traceability helps catch these errors before they ever hit the market and identify their root cause. Implementing traceability also better prepares businesses for any legal inquiries into or new regulations regarding their product.

  • Sustainability. Farm-to-fork is a popular concept when it comes to food sustainability, and it embodies the concept of traceability. Traceability can help you identify potential sustainability improvements in your practice such as ethical or local sourcing, which in turn helps you provide a higher quality product. It also paves the way to conduct life cycle sustainability assessments and allows for product lifecycle management.

  • Efficiency. Large companies often have many moving parts throughout their manufacturing process. Traceability can help business owners streamline operations and make their supply chain more efficient. This is especially important in large-scale manufacturing. A product defect could be due to human, machine or system error. Traceability helps manufacturers find the source of errors and fine-tune their systems to be as efficient as possible.

  • Identify gray market diversion. Because of the many moving parts of a supply chain, it is possible for a product — or the materials used to produce a product — to be diverted from the chain for a number of reasons. Companies with detailed track and trace systems can identify if, when and where these diversions happen.

  • Access to information. The data provided by traceability can provide other insights into business practices such as company growth, production numbers, profit margin, and company footprint. Having all this information in the same place helps provide a big picture view of operations and helps executives make well-informed company decisions.

  • Consumer impact. No matter the product, consumers want it to be safe, durable and trustworthy. But even more than that, consumers nowadays are looking for sustainable sourcing, company transparency and ethical business practices. Traceability allows customers to access this kind of information and interact with a product beyond point of sale.

Why is upstream tracing important?

Traceability after the sale: Why this is important to brands and consumers

Traceability is important to more than just supply chain and manufacturing. Take the romaine lettuce recall from 2018. Romaine lettuce was found to contain E. coli and had to be traced back to its source. However, this couldn’t be done immediately because there was a complicated web of farmers, suppliers, and distributors. In response, consumers were told to avoid all romaine lettuce until it could be traced. With more traceability measures in place, the source could have been identified faster and a lot more waste and consumer panic could have been avoided.

This kind of traceability is referred to as upstream tracing and is often done from the consumer perspective. But it’s more than government officials needing to trace the source of contamination or customers researching out of curiosity. Traceability after the sale is important to all players involved for a number of reasons.

  • Safety. Upstream tracing is necessary in cases of defective products, and having traceability measures already in place expedites this process and helps keep any negative effects on consumers to a minimum.

  • Sustainability. Customers who prioritize ESG values such as sustainability and transparency have easier access to this information with traceability measures in place.

  • Consumer experience. Traceability can be much more than just barcodes and inspection notes. With certain digital platforms such as the interface provided by Blue Bite, consumers can have a unique interaction that extends beyond point of sale. A QR code on the product becomes the gateway to a consumer experience that takes them behind the scenes of the company and the manufacturing of their product, offers authentication of ethical and sustainable sourcing, and makes their connection with that product feel more intimate.

  • Consumer satisfaction. A transparent traceability chain helps provide a higher quality product and enhances the consumer experience altogether, which results in higher customer satisfaction and confidence in your product. Establishing this consumer relationship beyond the purchase builds customer loyalty and lifetime value.

Industries that Benefit from Traceability

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