Current talk about the Obama Administration’s trouble with transparency reveals a strong parallel with sustainability-oriented businesses: it’s easy (and sounds so nice) to say you’re committed to transparency; try to deliver on that promise and you’re likely to encounter walls of uncertainty, fear, and bureaucratic resistance.
When transparency means revealing unfavorable or unflattering information (and it usually does to some extent), companies and institutions often get cold feet. They consider the negative publicity that could ensue and decide they can’t risk it. What they often fail to consider is the risk of continuing to hide and the benefits of public confession.
Someone’s bound to find out your secrets eventually, and then you have no control over the story. On the other hand, social psychology research, along with plenty of anecdotal evidence, shows that organizations that acknowledge problems—and say what they’re doing to address them—are perceived as more credible. Telling the truth makes you trustworthy. This is why attention to challenges is a factor in the Thinkshift Credibility Quotient™ (see an earlier post on how this applies to companies introducing advanced technologies).
You may be familiar with one of the best examples of transparency and acknowledging challenges: Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles program, which traces the company’s products through the supply chain. If not, here’s a look at the site in action:
I look up a jacket, and the website tells me the sustainability “good” (it’s recyclable), and the “bad” (the waterproof finish uses a chemical that persists in the environment). It also tells me they’re researching alternatives, but for now the finish stays because it’s essential to performance.
The fact that they’re telling me a negative thing makes the positives they point out all the more credible. It also has the interesting effect of making me as a potential purchaser share responsibility. They’ve told me about the chemical; if I want to reduce its incidence, I can forego waterproofing. If I want the waterproofing, I am partly responsible for the sustainability problem. Nice, huh?