THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING TRANSPARENT
Don’t try to hide
In our era of hyper connectivity, transparency might feel like something forced upon us all and for businesses that scrutiny comes from activists, investigative journalists and bloggers as well as digital tracking tools like Trase. Yet these same digital tools – such as Blockchain – can be turned to the advantage of companies seeking to establish their credentials with customers and the wider lesson here – as with most ‘risks’ in sustainability – is that they can be acted upon and eventually be turned into competitive advantages.
Explore, collaborate and disclose
Not that it’s easy for companies starting out on their journey towards marrying sustainability to profitability. The common assumption is start-ups’ very newness makes them nimble and they simply cruise past the obstacles faced by corporate supertankers having to change course after decades on plain sailing. In reality these corporate giants have the experience, reach and resources to know – and then improve - their supply chain practices.
Unfortunately, we’re finding that securing voluntary certification around everything from sustainable fish to palm oil and cotton is not always enough due to the shortcomings or softness of the methodologies involved and this creates a need for a more DIY-orientated approach to researching the realities of one’s own supply chain. This is the reason that consumer giants from Unilever to Walmart are doing just that and creating their own codes of conduct in the process, whilst reporting back to their customers on their progress, be it good or bad news.
Newcomers seeking to learn more about the sometimes harsh realities of their manufacturing processes before acting to implement efficiencies, streamline processes and improving sourcing practices understandably need some help. The good news is that whilst sustainability problems are systemic, so are the solutions in this case that calls for collaboration and benefiting from experience and expertise. For ETHOSA, that means exploring multiple potential partnerships – such as with Natrue - in order to analyse the current state of the play and the timelines for changes on the journey ahead. Once that’s in place, brands like ETHOSA can disclose their current practices and plan for the future just like everyone else.
Don’t be afraid to be naked or imperfect
Disclosure might not always feel pleasant but it’s a lot better than lying and being caught with your pants down months or years down the line. ETHOSA’s pledge that ‘while we’re not 100% perfect, we’re always 100% transparent’ is grounded in the knowledge that honesty and openness breed trust. A company’s website and packaging should provide the “small print” writ large when it comes to ingredients, sourcing, carbon and water footprints and these statistics should always be put in context. By this I mean expressing resource savings in comprehensible ways that allow people to understand their value. In this regard, “30% of all the electricIty used in the manufacturing of this product was renewable, up from 20% last year” is permissible. Saying that by buying this product you have helped a brand reduce its use of plastic “by the equivalent of 18 Tyrannosaurus Rex” is not.
Imperfection appeals through the very humanity of fallibility. Because neither companies nor their customers are perfect. Perfection will always be distrusted and you should always be suspicious of try-hard brands with dazzling infographics. We don’t expect perfection from the friends and family we forgive and the same goes for brands. As with most things, Patagonia was early to the party here and since 2007, its Footprint Chronicles have disclosed details of operations under a directive to “Be completely honest about where our products came from and the resources required to create them.”
Disclose data, targets and progress
In 2014, Patagonia respected its customers enough to respond to their exasperated demands as to why a world leader in sustainability was mailing out its clothes in – ugh! - plastic warp made from fossil fuels. The brand’s explanation that these were the most effective way of protecting the garment (and its vastly greater use of resources) from being damaged and wasted represented an object lesson in how dialogue and a willingness to face and explain difficult questions led to enhanced trust and custom.
Most brands would rather holler ‘plastic free’ than engage customers in an open explanation of the realities of the options on offer and their impacts. In cosmetics, plastic packaging is often an unsustainable yet unavoidable option for liquid formats. After experiencing safety issues in testing glass, ETHOSA has reasoned that MET/PP laminate sachets make most sense for some components, but is continuing to monitor innovations for more eco-friendly alternatives it can implement. All brands embrace Life Cycle Assessment analyses behind closed doors, but these principles of considering impacts at the different stages of sourcing, production, distribution, consumption and end of life hardly constitute rocket science and offer a ready-made framework for brands willing to open up, explain and educate their customers in the process.
Transparency is sharing with others
As alluded to earlier achieving transparency demands helping hands and brands should open up to rivals and work to share, halve and solve problems together. We’ve seen numerous high profile examples of this take on transparency splitting research costs, speeding up timelines and creating new closed loop innovations, from Adidas and Allbirds teaming up to create a shoe with zero carbon footprint to Ford recycling McDonald’s coffee waste into car parts. All brands should be embracing this spirit and consulting their wider customer and community stakeholders to source ideas and share best practices not just shower them in data. In this regard, Walmart’s Green Room does on Pinterest, ETHOSA’s own Knowledge Hub and at a broader level, the UK’s Sustainable Beauty Coalition represent sterling examples of brands sharing everything from guidelines to tips in helping everyone from manufacturers to consumers become more sustainable.
Transparency is not about PR. If done sincerely it translates into customer loyalty due to the convenience of ‘choice editing’ (where a brand only uses the most sustainable options) that customers enjoy. Conceptually, going transparent is to humanise your company – through fallibility as we’ve discussed – but also by connecting with your people and sharing stories with them, celebrating the idea of what Donella H Meadows called “The Global Citizen”. Finally, whilst the data should be readily available we needn’t overcook it and a big part of transparency should be offering a clear vision of what a better future looks like for our stakeholders, and with that, hope.
About the Author
Richard Cope works as a consultant specialising in consumers trends and sustainability. With a background in futurology and market research he is a frequent media commentator and regular speaker at business conferences and a graduate of the University of Cambridge’s Business Sustainability Management programme. LinkedIn