Any company that truly aspires to be authentic must dare to wear the see-through. It must have the courage to publicly bare, for all to see, its good, bad, and ugly impacts on society and the environment. Only then can an enterprise make a convincing case that it’s authentic—that its actions live up to its words. This is especially true of a company that seeks to do good. Stakeholders expect—and the Web’s accelerating influence demands—that values-driven companies reveal their shortcomings and engage the outside world on how best to fix them.
Seventh Generation has taken on the see-through imperative by leveraging our blog, Web site, and corporate responsibility reports to reveal our successes and more importantly, our setbacks. Here are three critical lessons that we’ve learned—sometimes the hard way—in our effort to become authentically transparent.
As companies become less opaque, demands increase for greater transparency. Thanks to the democratizing effect of the Web—as well as outside pressure from activist groups, NGOs, and citizen stakeholders—the traditional corporate-communications model has been flipped. A company’s communications no longer flows exclusively from the top-down, with only executives in the C-suite permitted to make “official” pronouncements. The public airing of company business also flows from the bottom-up—and out—as front-line employees blog on nearly everything that the company is up to—wrong as well as right.
With more and more employees, CEOs, activist groups, and citizen stakeholders taking to blogging, the pressure to air company business grows stronger every day. Up until several years ago, no U.S. company would dream of listing its subcontracting factories on its Web site. But when Nike and the Gap broke that taboo, it became an issue that every company with a global supply chain needed to deal with. Once you let in a little sunshine, it tends to spread.
*By exposing problems, transparency begins to solve them. When a company begins to make itself transparent, it essentially conducts an unblinking audit of all its activities. The process is analogous to the lifecycle analysis of a product. Just as a product-development team puts a spotlight on all the impacts of a new offering, from cradle to grave, the company casts a bright light on itself, by measuring the systemic effects of operations.
That’s what led Timberland to affix Green Index tags to some of its footwear, outlining the shoes’ climate impact, harmful chemicals, and non-renewable materials. This transparency-fueled design innovation has helped the company understand that most of its carbon footprint comes from extracting and processing raw materials, before it even makes the shoes. By producing a 3-D picture of its carbon output, Timberland has taken the first step toward mitigating the problem.
*Transparency builds trust. No company lives entirely in a glass house, meeting the transparency challenge at every level of the organization. Some secrets—Coke’s formula, Apple’s design process—will most likely always remain unrevealed.
And yet, the accelerating power of viral media has upended the carefully scripted communications still venerated by many in the business establishment. To confront the relentless, Internet-powered scrutiny by outsiders (and blabbing insiders) of their business activities, companies will have to strip away the layers of secrecy surrounding their impacts on society and the environment. That’s a good thing, because fewer secrets generate greater trust. And in our bottom-up media culture, trust accrues to the most transparent.