sustainable business

True transparency is not for sissies

Sandra Stewart | November 1, 2016

Transparency about issues relevant to social and environmental performance is a core value for sustainable businesses. Most will tell you they believe in its importance, and many promote it as part of their brand identity.

Sustainable companies certainly have been trailblazers in radical transparency—Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles and the clothing company Indigenous’ Fair Trace Tool come immediately to mind. But many companies communicate only about the sustainability issues they’re actively working on. While leaders may justifiably be thinking “one thing at a time,” touting transparency as a value while communicating only about your progress on, say, energy use, puts your brand at risk. If you don’t acknowledge other material issues (waste, labor standards, and so on), stakeholders may think you’re hiding something—and you end up looking like the opposite of transparent.

To check how well your business is doing in the transparency department, ask yourself these questions.

Do you air your dirty laundry?
Many of us have a “closet of shame” at home, where we stuff the messes we’re not ready to deal with and don’t want guests to see. Businesses have them too. But if you’re claiming to be transparent, you don’t have the option of just keeping the door closed: you have to tidy it up and expose the contents to the light of day. No one will enjoy this (except perhaps Marie Kondo devotees), so focus on how much better you’ll all feel when it’s done.

I’m not suggesting you promote the dirty laundry, by the way. I’m saying it needs to be aired appropriately, along with a plan for cleaning it up and keeping it clean, in an appropriate forum—such as your sustainability report. In fact, your sustainability report is a good barometer of transparency: if it’s all happy talk all the time, you’re as transparent as mud. If you haven’t gotten to something yet, be honest about it.

Do you give your PR team an unvarnished view?
Your PR people need to look inside all the closets of shame. Not because they want to promote them—god no—but because they want to keep the doors from flying open prematurely. Without the whole picture, for instance, the PR team may diligently promote as current fact your vision for sustainability in some area, and then a reporter may decide to dig into it and learn the ugly truth. When PR asks how you’re doing on waste reduction or some such, don’t provide the numbers you hope to meet—be real.

Is your business transparent on the inside?
Some businesses talk about their devotion to transparency but don’t accomplish it in their internal operations. This is fakakta. If staff don’t understand executives’ priorities, if operational decisions don’t reflect stated priorities, if departments are fiefdoms that withhold information from each other, you won’t have a clear picture of how you’re doing on sustainability issues. And without transparency on the inside, you cannot be transparent to external stakeholders. No level of precision in reporting of carbon emissions will compensate for a fundamentally opaque organization.

Transparency is hard, for a host of reasons. But when you say you’re transparent, you owe it to all your stakeholders to truly work at it and to talk about what needs improvement along with what’s going well. If you do that, it can earn you fanatically devoted customers, loyal employees and smarter decision making.

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