Social entrepreneur Michael Solomon has launched what he guarantees to be the final word in best practice labels: SEE What You Are Buying Into (Social Environmental Ethical).
“This is a transparency mark. We’re identifying transparent businesses,” says Solomon.
Why is he so sure that there is no way any form of green-wash or maltreatment disguised will be discovered under his label? He claims to have made the process too irritating to complete unless you’re as serious as death.
“When to talk to big business, they look at these 25 questions and they say, can we answer half of them? And that kind of goes against the basic idea. Don’t talk about the things you want to talk about whilst ignoring the elephant in the room.”
Solomon explains that the questionnaire is so rigorous, with so many fine points, the burden of proof so high that any company that wasn’t serious about his standard will simply not be able to get through it. A company will not complete the standard unless it knows that it will pass. And once a company receives the label, it’s asked to maintain that burden of proof at all times, not just quarterly or annually. That’s the potentially high value of SEE– potentially.
“People are very disinclined to believe what they are told,” says Solomon, “Businesses need to be able to be trusted when they talk about this stuff. And if they’re struggling to be believed then it creates the space in which greenwash will flourish.”
The label seeks to act like an umbrella for existing standards: Traidcraft, Fairtrade Foundation, Forest Stewardship Council, Survival International, Carers UK, Manifest, the Tax Justice Network, among others. The questionnaire sources questions from these standards for its 7 subject areas: Community, Corporate Governance, Donations and Payments, Environment, Human Rights, Market Place Ethics, Workforce for 25 questions (there are sub-questions).
“I have spoken to what you may regard to be big corporate green-washers… and I’d had very interesting discussions about whether or not they want to be transparent in this way over a range of issues. We’ve found the biggest businesses talking about their desire to answer a part of the questionnaire, not all of the questionnaire.” Solomon wouldn’t say which ones though.
The label has already been internationalised: Companies certified include the UK’s Pukka Herbs, Better Food Company, Marstans Press, Calvert’s, and Better World Books in the US.* Eaga and Societas are both in the pipeline to carry the label.
He does give an example of a product that wouldn’t get this seal of approval: Nestle’s so-called Fair Trade KitKat bears a fair standards seal but the fair trade coco that it’s made with represents only about 1% of the total coco that Nestle buys in a year. Sure, the coco in that KitKat is fair trade, but as a business practice, Nestle isn’t near fair.
Where companies fall short of meeting the SEE standards, SEE works in a consultant-like process to refer companies to best practices that companies which already carry their label use in order to help them rise to the standard. He says no company that has been through the process– even those that haven’t made it– has been the worse for it. For them its been a learning experience.
The potential downfall of the label is that SEE itself doesn’t do any inspecting, but instead relies on the businesses to be honest with the data that they are providing. They don’t have the manpower.
A possibly redeeming factor is that they are also relying on consumers to inspect for themselves and to report that information on the website. The SEE website has a social media feel to it: consumers can register and can submit information to SEE, rating the certified companies and thus providing legitimacy for company claims. Consumers can also nominate companies they would like to see adopt the label. It remains to be seen whether this will work as Solomon hopes.
The key will be aggressive social media engagement with people all over the world. And companies that particpate will have to be confident in SEE’s visibility as a label, which takes consumer education, especially as SEE hopes to trumpet companies under its label that do extraordinary things.
All the information that the companies provide is summarised on the SEE website and is fully exportable. SEE is also developing an app that will allow consumers to scan the barcodes and upload them to the website in order to express interest to companies that make whatever product it is, that they are interested in social and ethical issues surrounding that product or company. Effectively, the consumer is nominating or challenging a company to behave ethically at the point of purchase. Solomon says that depending on what privacy features they have enabled on their phone, they could even chose to report their demographic information to companies, so that companies know more about who is interested in them behaving ethically.
Not a bad start but they’re stumbling a bit on their social media strategy. Their Twitter handle needs a rethink: @SWYABI ; if the label is called SEE and they expect to interact over social media with users, the letters S, E, and E need to be in the handle so it’s easily searchable by users.
The audio of the full interview (recorded on my iPhone, in a coffee shop) is available here.
*Solomon says that he’d like to trumpet what Better World Books is doing, but they are apparently too busy for an interview. Maybe a little nudging from fans might help?