How AI and DNA Are Unlocking the Mysteries of Global Supply Chains

Having a full picture of their supply chains can offer companies other benefits, like helping them recall faulty products or reduce costs. The information is increasingly needed to estimate how much carbon dioxide is actually emitted in the production of a good, or to satisfy other government rules that require products to be sourced from particular places — such as the Biden administration’s new rules on electric vehicle tax credits.

Executives at these technology companies say they envision a future, perhaps within the next decade, in which most supply chains are fully traceable, an outgrowth of both tougher government regulations and the wider adoption of technologies.

“It’s eminently doable,” said Leonardo Bonanni, the chief executive of Sourcemap, which has helped companies like the chocolate maker Mars map out their supply chains. “If you want access to the U.S. market for your goods, it’s a small price to pay, frankly.”

Others express skepticism about the limitations of these technologies, including their cost. While Applied DNA’s technology, for example, adds only 5 to 7 cents to the price of a finished piece of apparel, that may be significant for retailers competing on thin margins.

And some express concerns about accuracy, including, for example, databases that may flag companies incorrectly. Investigators still need to be on the ground locally, they say, speaking with workers and remaining alert for signs of forced or child labor that may not show up in digital records.

Justin Dillon, the chief executive of FRDM, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending forced labor, said there was “a lot of angst, a lot of confusion” among companies trying to satisfy the government’s new requirements.

Importers are “looking for boxes to check,” he said. “And transparency in supply chains is as much an art as it is a science. It’s kind of never done.”

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