From bauxite to beverage cans
Using blockchain to help trace our responsible aluminium
Aluminium undergoes a huge transformation from a red bauxite rock to the metal found everywhere in life.
It’s mined, refined and smelted. It travels on trucks and ships – sometimes thousands of kilometres. And finally, it’s shaped into everything from cans to cars. So, through all of that – how can you be confident the product you’ve just bought was made responsibly?
Understanding – and being able to trace – the full process is important as more and more consumers seek out products made sustainably. In fact, research by Deloitte suggests ethical and sustainability issues are a key driver for almost a third of consumers.
We sat down with Paramita Das, General Manager, Global Marketing and Development in our Aluminium business, about START – a tool providing traceable transparent information about products containing our aluminium.
We created START to help our customers – and the consumers who buy their products – make informed decisions. Our goal is to support increased transparency and traceability across the aluminium supply chain."
Ed: Paramita, thanks for your time. How did START come about?
Paramita: People want to know more about the products they buy, where they come from and how they were made. This is true for food, clothes – and aluminium products are no exception. So, we created START to help our customers – and the consumers who buy their products – make informed decisions. Our goal is to support increased transparency and traceability across the aluminium supply chain.
Ed: It’s been described as a nutrition label for aluminium. Can you tell us a little about how it works?
Paramita: We use blockchain technology to trace every step in the production process – from where the bauxite is mined to the end products they’re made into.
Each aluminium order is assigned a unique QR code, which customers can print on their products. By scanning the code, you will be taken to a web page that details the complete journey from the ground to the finished product.
The information is really easy to get. Just a quick scan of a QR code on an aluminium drink can or a new electric car and you can see the credentials of the metal used.
Tracking aluminium from START to finish
Like a “nutrition label” for aluminium, key information is provided across 10 criteria for Rio Tinto aluminium from mine to market:
Global warming potential, water management, renewable energy, recycled content, waste management, safety performance, contribution to communities, supplier due diligence, governance systems and diversity.
Through secure blockchain technology you can see where your aluminium comes from, how it was made, and the environmental, social and governance standards followed during its production.
Ed: How do we assure the data in START? Is it independently verified?
Paramita: The information used in START is collected as part of our annual sustainability reporting.
Each of our sites provides data that is verified by internal subject matter experts, and then reviewed by our Group Health, Safety, Environment & Security and Communities & Social Performance teams as a second line of assurance. It is also reviewed by the Board’s Sustainability Committee, and an external auditor assures the greenhouse gas emissions information.
The blockchain itself also adds a level of security because it’s like a digital record-keeping system. It collects information and stores it in “blocks” which are all connected. Every time new information is collected, it is stored chronologically with time stamps, so information can’t be changed.
Ed: How does it differ from other assurance initiatives, like the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) which we’re already part of?
Paramita: We see it as building on the existing assurance systems, like ASI.
With increased scrutiny on the origin of materials and on climate change, we believe START will help customers respond to growing consumer expectations. Our goal is to demonstrate to customers and consumers that our responsibly produced and traceable aluminium is the right material for their needs.
Ed: How has the take up been?
Paramita: The response has been overwhelmingly positive – we’ve had more than 100 customers sign up across all geographic markets, and we’re only six months into the programme.
It’s also exciting for our employees to see us trying new things in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) space. As a Rio employee I feel proud my company sees ESG as integral to its products.
Ed: Are there any plans to expand this concept beyond aluminium to other Rio Tinto products?
Paramita: We’re moving towards digitising a lot of our commercial activities.
In 2019, our Iron Ore business used blockchain to make the first fully integrated paperless trade, streamlining the process from six days to one. And then with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it highlighted the importance of digital tools in our supply chain. It wasn’t always possible for people to physically sign documents or personally receive hard copy documents, for example.
In the past year we introduced Rio Track, which allows customers to view their shipments in real time. And we also launched the Rio Portside WeChat app, which allows customers to buy iron ore on their phones – a first for the industry.
Blockchain really does open a lot of possibilities to help our customers make informed and faster decisions about what materials they want to use in their products.