A Spirit Of Transparency: Not As Frightening As You Think

by , Nov 1, 2012, 7:00 AM
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In keeping with the spooky theme of the season, let’s talk about a scary topic for a lot of folks in the C-suite: openly sharing the status of their sustainability efforts. 

Thankfully, we live in an era where many companies are taking a more triple-bottom line approach. Whether spurred by the request of retailers or consumers, or guided by a deeper mission, companies are taking a closer look at their operational and product impact on the environment – use of resources, waste and recycling – and expanding that to include treatment of employees, workers and animals, as well as the impact along the supply chain. 

While it’s one thing to conduct an assessment for internal purposes, it’s another to reveal your warts. Outside of mission-driving companies such as Patagonia and Seventh Generation, and big Fortune 500 corporations whose shareholders demand reporting, there’s a lot of the “I-don’t–want-to-say-anything-unless-it’s-perfect” syndrome.

There is reason to pause. A company’s reputation – its brand integrity – is at stake. A hit or a miss on communications can make an impact, and it’s smart to think it through. 

Let’s all start with the same assumption: there is typically a core, vocal set of consumers that really cares about the details and goes through the trouble of digging deeper into the data. Most people, however, just want to know that you’re “doing the right thing.” To that end, it’s usually smart to share your story, allowing you to differentiate your company and connect with what your consumers value. Here are some things to consider about how transparent you want to be.

What’s the worst that can happen?

This is exactly what your CEO is thinking. Is the release of data going to prompt consumer activism? Will people now press unrealistic demands on the company for a greater commitment that it’s unwilling or unable to fulfill? Will they watch our every move to make sure we improve? 

Time to take a deep breath. 

The likelihood of such extreme reactions is rare, particularly because you’ve just pulled back the curtain. People appreciate effort, earnestness, and aspirations. The risk of an information void creating false assumptions is actually probably greater when you stay quiet, because people often assume the worst. 

Positioning your findings

It’s really important to have a point of view on your findings on a number of levels. 

First, take a look at what your motivation is for conducting the assessment. Reasoning typically falls somewhere on the spectrum between responding to an outside request – an important customer demanded it – or it’s part of the company’s mission to lead an industry and transform the way business is conducted. Where your organization falls affects how you talk. The more of a leadership position, the more you share about your findings and aspirations so you can influence change in the broader industry. If you’re paying closer attention now because (to be honest) you have to, then maybe you don’t chest beat so much. It’s important to get senior leadership to share what’s behind the work so you’re on the same page.

Secondly, what story do the results themselves share? Because sustainability is a journey, there is always room for improvement, but did you do particularly well in an area or two? Did the results prompt you to set new goals? What are you doing about problem areas? 

Lastly, the work that you did within your company ties into much broader issues such as global warming, environment degradation, animal welfare, fair labor, etc. You have two options: avoid the direct connection to what can be polarizing, political issues and make no link whatsoever, or proactively declare your company’s point of view on the topic. If your company culture is one of independence and the mission is to lead an industry, the latter is likely right for you. If you’re more concerned about alienating potential customers, it might be best to focus more on the facts and sidestep politic statements. 

Level of disclosure

Let’s be honest. Reading through energy audits and the like can be highly academic and dry. Who reads this stuff? Aside from the handful of consumers who are seriously interested, the most likely people to read your findings are fellow CSR managers looking for best practices. 

So consider who needs access to the information and who may just be interested to know you care. The real power in sharing a deep level of findings is to allow other companies to learn from your efforts. Open yourself up to share, connect and collaborate as part of the desire to continually improve. 

But on a more general level, the real objective is often as simple as making sure customers understand you are not asleep at the wheel, you’re paying attention to your impact and you’re making best efforts to improve. That communication doesn’t have to be complex, but we often do recommend that the information gets shared. The content is really driven by the company culture, the data and level of interest, taking a variety of forms, from playful brochures to personal letters, press releases and web pages. 

The bottom line is that there is power in vulnerability. Don’t be scared to share your experience. 

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