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More Transparent Transparency?

Carolyn McMaster | February 25, 2010

Greener World Media’s State of Green Business 2010 report is out, and, as it did last year, this excellent report drives home the need for companies to communicate credibly and completely about their sustainability efforts and back up green claims with relevant information.

One reason is “radical transparency”—people are using Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms and mobile apps to instantly disseminate news and opinions to desktop and smartphone alike. If you’re not credible, you’ll be called on it—and everyone will know about it. This is good news—it’s making all kinds of companies be more sustainable, and it seems to be prompting better communications (albeit more slowly than I’d like).

But it’s also making heads spin. We’re being overloaded with information, and it’s hard to know what’s credible and what isn’t. In one egregious example, most consumers think “natural” is better than “organic.” Third-party ratings such as Green Seal, the Green Good Housekeeping seal, and Underwriters Laboratories’ UL Environment are helping, but each rating organization looks at things differently, and there’s a plethora of labels.

I hope these rating efforts achieve something close to market consensus and get up to some kind of critical mass this year. The FTC isn’t helping—it’s been foot-dragging for two years or more in its efforts to review and revise its “Green Guides” for environmental marketing. (If anyone knows how to get them moving, I’ll help you any way I can.)

The FTC’s inertia reminds me of a recent New Yorker cartoon in which an executive says to his colleagues, “Let’s never forget that the public’s desire for transparency has to be balanced by our need for concealment.”

I’m not that cynical, but as Joel Makower points out in the State of Green Business, change is coming about in no small part due to pressure from lawsuits, Congress, and activists. Companies need to step up, to be on a truly sustainable path, and to communicate credibly and transparently, all the time, not just when it serves their purpose.


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