Editor's note: To kick off our upcoming series on transparency in the apparel industry, we wanted to show how traceability and transparency have influenced industries and government practices for the last 400+ years.
No issue better highlights the importance of business transparency than the recent battles about the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. The agreement by the world’s largest cereal, soup and candy makers to label products earlier this year may have sprung from Vermont’s new GMO labeling law, but it underscored consumers’ demand that they have a right to know what they are buying – right down to the molecule.
So did a 2015 survey by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), which said that consumers hold manufacturers primarily responsible for that communication. The stores that sell the products, the restaurants that serve them and, in some cases, even the farmers or ranchers who grow or raise the food hold less responsibility for keeping consumers in the know than the guys that source, make and package the food.
Consumer conscience has also played heavily into issues of transparency. The 18th- and 19th-century child labor laws that emerged in England and the United States were the first guidelines to regulate how people were treated in the labor force. They highlighted abusive labor conditions and helped send a message to mill owners and other employers that the public was watching and expected better business practices. It also sent the message that there were consequences for irresponsible labor practices.
Buyers want the ability to influence the way that the appliances they use in the kitchen are made. They want ongoing communication about the funding that builds sports complexes, the information that schools collect about their students and how they use it, and the human costs of the wars our governments undertake. And buyers want accountability by companies and nonprofits for how they spend the money they earn from consumers.
Buyers also want to know that corporate supply chains and business affiliations share the values the company or organization presents to the public. They want to know that the cereal they eat is sourced with good ingredients and made with the ethical choices they expect of the company. And they want to know that the organization's values are reflected in the decisions it makes and stands by -- including its political decisions.
Certainly one of the most interesting examples of this triad of expectations is the ongoing pressure Google received for its decision to live-stream the Republican convention, which will host Donald Trump. Many would say it is Google’s decision to make. Others argue that when it comes to consumers’ views of current affairs, the company’s business decisions are reflective of its accountability to those who use, pay for and support its growth.
In comparison, ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry's continues to get high praise from consumers not just because it says it sources ethically, but because it also aligns its political decisions with those it feels best reflect its consumer base -- and it does so publicly.
And yet, religious organizations have often played remarkable roles in shaping and encouraging transparency in business sectors. The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia Congregation has helped to shape and strengthen transparency in the environmental sector through shareholder advocacy for years. Similarly, the Jewish rabbinical organization, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), uses its strength to highlight environmental issues and press for increased dialogue and government and business accountability.
Meanwhile, sporting organizations have found that pleasing fans isn't always just about giving a good, rousing game. Loyal patrons want to know equal treatment, sound governance and a respect for human rights are part of the organization's mission statement. Labor scandals in Qatar and charges of corruption in the governance of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) catalyzed a more earnest effort to show transparency in the sports industry. In both cases, organizations had to acknowledge that increased accountability and communication are driving forces to their success.
Historians suggest that true change in the public's ability to influence business practices really owes its start to the Industrial Revolution and the mechanized boost it gave to the textile industry during the 19th century. If so, it did more than revise business ethics. It transformed the way we look at the consumer and the small, still voice that continues to drive progress to this day.
Image credit: Flickr/Anne Hanks
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.