With the rapid development of sustainability as a consumer priority, it is unsurprising that many businesses are prioritising increased transparency of their operations and their supply chain. As consumers will likely have noticed, many organisations are weaving ‘green’ narratives of environmentalism into their strategy and product development, but how beneficial is such marketing when an organisation’s core business model does not align with sustainable development principles?
This article is an introduction to transparency and its role within the sustainability agenda. It will briefly discuss what transparency is, the jargon and inaccessibility that characterises it, why it is important for businesses, and how it might be implemented. It will be the first in a wider series discussing the essential role of transparency in collectively working towards a sustainable future. The following pieces will touch on areas including self-reporting support for businesses, how transparency intersects with consumerism, and the complicated moral ethics surrounding transparency.
What is ‘transparency’?
The term ‘transparency’ within sustainability can vary depending on its context, and what exactly someone is attempting to measure, report and communicate. However, for the purpose of this article, I shall be referring to transparency as a ‘set of concrete criteria that is necessary to improve sustainability practice and standards…’ [Oxford Language]. Unfortunately, the ‘set’ criteria for transparency isn’t always so clear cut. It can be almost impossible to navigate the excessive terminology, frameworks, and information that exists out there without professional guidance.
Therefore, the next section will consider the prolific jargon that exists within such frameworks and information, and how the sustainable agenda may be inaccessible to both consumers and businesses with little to no prior knowledge.
Jargon and Inaccessibility
As the global agenda of sustainability constantly develops, the integral need to intersect it with work to achieve equality becomes increasingly obvious. As certain academics are now beginning to explore, this link is essential in discussions around transparency, as the excessive jargon and overly complicated process of self-reporting can be weaponised against individuals to make the discussion inaccessible.
For example, look at the variance between the following terms:
- Net zero – target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere [Oxford Language]
- Carbon neutral – making or result in no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, especially as a result of carbon offsetting [Oxford Language]
- Carbon negative – the reduction of an entity’s carbon footprint to less than neutral, so that the entity has a net effect of removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it adds [British Antarctic Survey]
With no clear understanding of these definitions, it isn’t surprising that many assume them to be the same thing and use such terminology interchangeably despite having very definable differences. As a result, these terms, which were intended to act as guiding frameworks, have become an added complexity to both those businesses trying to report their impact, and for consumers attempting to understand the impact of their decisions.
It is in this context that I introduce what is arguably the key term to understand such jargon: greenwashing. First coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, it refers to ‘a marketing tool used to deceive consumers into believing a product or brand is environmentally friendly.’
It originated due to hotels encouraging guests to reuse their towels to save energy, without actually implementing any other ‘green’ initiatives. Westerveld believed such a scheme to be profit driven and not of environmental benefit, and therefore marked it the first official example of greenwashing.
The varying nature of greenwashing can make it highly difficult to identify, especially with the complex jargon used to disguise it. After all, as this RTS article explains, it can characterise something as small as incorporating images of our natural environment into the packaging of processed foods, or even purposely misinforming ‘consumer practices through green marketing’ and presenting data in a skewed manner. TerraChoice Environmental Marketing have identified ‘seven sins’ that represent the most common greenwashing practices. Take a look and keep these in mind from both a business and consumer’s perspective. If individuals are increasingly aware what greenwashing actually constitutes, the subsequent accountability can put pressure on institutions and companies alike to sincerely improve their sustainability practice, rather than simply misrepresent it.
An example that previously featured in international news was concerning global fast-food company McDonald’s switch from single-use plastic straws to a paper alternative in 2018. This was part of a wider scheme to source ‘100% of their packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025’. Yet, following leaked internal communications, the straws were exposed as non-recyclable in 2019. This demonstrated the prolific use of purposeful misinformation and greenwashing within organisations to promote unrealistic progress towards sustainable agendas.
Unfortunately, the continuation of greenwashing practices continue to happen with varying levels of accountability. This is not helped by the array of different reporting frameworks and sustainability standards that exist and sometimes contradict each other.
In response, many organisations or credible sites have begun to develop glossaries to simplify the language around transparency. In particular, this British Antarctic Survey glossary and this The Chancery Lane Project Glossary are incredibly useful for individuals just starting out on their sustainability journey.
Ultimately, disparate regulatory bodies can only go so far in mitigating such practices, so transparency and accountability are integral in countering this rise of misinformation. This is particularly relevant in the age of digitisation and globalisation, which will be considered more extensively in the following articles.
Why is transparency so important?
The role of transparency within business and corporate operations will be discussed more extensively within a separate article, so this section will provide an initial introduction into why it is so key in working towards the global sustainability agenda.
Companies are facing more demand by regulators, investors and consumers to be transparent in their environmental, social and corporate governance. Despite attempts by certain companies to displace blame for the climate emergency onto the individual [read this interesting article to find out more about the history of the carbon footprint], personal virtue and commitment to reducing our own ‘footprint’ is not effective enough on its own to prevent further change. Rather, collective action needs to be accompanied by policy and relevant transparency within businesses and organisations to successfully address our current situation.
Furthermore, analysing an organisation’s full impact doesn’t simply benefit international attempts to counter the climate emergency; it can have extensive benefits in responding to new patterns of consumption, increasing the perceived value of a brand, and improving supply chains. For instance, through openly sharing their operations and production stages, transparency can benefit businesses and organisations in two ways:
(1) the findings can help to improve standards throughout supply chains.
(2) it providers consumers and buyers with the necessary data to make fully informed choices.
In reference to point (1), this typically results through the identification and subsequent mitigation of social and environmental risks. This in turn encourages the implementation of minimum guidelines, as well as incentivising more ambitious industry standards. As research has demonstrated, the complex nature of global supply chains is one of the key contributors to unsustainable production practices, so increased transparency within the creation and distribution of products is essential.
Concerning point (2), such transparency across the board is essential in increasing the accessibility of information to all individuals. By providing consumers and stakeholders with the so-called ‘full-story’ at a comprehensible level, you can help remove the barriers that characterise sustainability policy and politics. This accessibility is essential in supporting individuals in making fully-informed decisions about the things they consume – after all, new evidence is showing that new purchase patterns are emerging in response to attitudes around sustainability and environmentalism. For instance, in the 2021 UK Ethical Consumer Markets Report, ethical consumer spending and finance was found to have increased by 24% in the space of a year. Moreover, this survey found that 52% of those aged 18 to 25 were “keeping an eye on the business practices of the companies they use”, and that a fifth of UK shoppers had stopped purchasing items from a brand due to their association with greenwashing claims.
In this context, I want to explain the ‘value proposition’ of being increasingly transparent about your practices and operations. The term, defined as ‘an innovation, service or feature intended to make a company or product attractive to customers’, is a key tool used by organisations to demonstrate the benefits of their products or services to consumers. In this instance, by being so vulnerable with customers – as well as demonstrating a genuine commitment to improving your sustainability practice – you can align your priorities with those of the customer. In turn, you are opening your organisation up to public accountability, and thereby increasing the perceived value of your organisation from the perspective of your target audience.
How can businesses be more transparent?
- Self-report your impact and develop a sustainability strategy
Whilst many organisations are taking the first steps towards measuring their impact at an immediate and direct level (e.g., the emissions produced by your production, warehouse or shipping), calculating your emissions throughout your entire supply chain and life cycle is integral to achieving full transparency.
Whilst the second article in the wider ‘Transparency Series’ will focus on the frameworks and guidance available for self-reporting your emissions and carbon footprint, there are resources which can help in the meantime.
If you are struggling to develop a sustainability strategy and calculate your own impact, Cynnal Cymru can provide consultancy support to help you in your journey. Visit our consultancy page to find out more.
2. Pay your workers a Living Wage
Paying workers at each stage of the supply and production chain a real Living Wage is essential in ensuring the global journey towards net zero is a fair and just transition. Accrediting as an official real Living Wage employer can also have significant benefits for your business, as research conducted by Cardiff Business School demonstrated 86% found their reputation had improved as a result.
Cynnal Cymru is the official Welsh accreditation body for the Living Wage Foundation and can assist your organisation in uplifting your workers and ensuring your sustainability strategy works alongside the fair work agenda.
3. Be open and vulnerable with your consumers
As discussed in the article, being more transparent and vulnerable around your supply chain, production and process is arguably one of the top actions that businesses can take towards sustainable development. Not only can you identify areas for improvement beyond your immediate remit of control or knowledge, but you can also improve your relationship with consumers, encourage wider implementation of “kindness-economy” ideals, and provide consumers with the knowledge to make their own informed decisions.
4. Educate staff
Organisations are increasingly introducing company policy and guidelines specifically to deal with sustainability. However, if your staff are not equally well-versed in the values and standards you are wishing to implement, then sustainability policy can only go so far.
Cynnal Cymru provides both Carbon Literacy and Nature Wise training for individuals with any level of knowledge or experience. We can even develop bespoke training specific to your organisation or sector. Visit our training page to find out more.
Our members can benefit from up to two hours free specialist support and two free places on our training courses. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more or register your interest.
To summarise, simply being honest with consumers and stakeholders about your environmental impact can have a significantly positive effect on your organisation. Not only can you identify areas where a sustainability strategy needs to be developed, you can encourage similar shared values of transparency and honesty within your sector. This increased accountability is integral in pushing forward the sustainability agenda, both within your organisation and beyond, as disparate regulatory bodies and frameworks can only solve part of the issue. Not to mention, from the perspective of a value proposition, transparency can increase the perceived value of your organisation by providing consumers with the information required to make fully informed decisions.
After all, the new generation of consumers are more and more concerned about the future of our planet, and their choices reflect that. As highlighted in this ScienceDirect article, the implementation of simple sustainability commitments are frequently criticised for being tokenistic and ‘lacking any clear implementation strategy’. Therefore, to engage with the sustainability agenda and respond to its impact upon consumerism, it is essential to analyse your organisation’s impact, implement the necessary strategy, and be open and honest about your challenges as well as your successes.
This article was written by our Development Officer, Abi Hoare, who has joined us on a one year placement as part of the Charityworks graduate scheme. This introduction and subsequent series was born out of previous conversations in the office about what ‘transparency’ actually means and how to make a complicated topic accessible to both businesses and consumers alike.