“Transparency” is the new buzz.  If only everyone had access to everything there is to know about a product and the company that made it, the bad guys would go out of business and sustainability would be attained.  Some thoughts on the goal of transparency:

Data alone is not enough to make good decisions. You need context, science, judgment and time to digest and understand it all. More likely, you’ll rely on others and hope they are doing the work for you – the 3rd party certifiers or your favorite network of trusted parties. The trouble is, no one really completely understands how the complex world ecosystem works. We know bits and pieces based on today’s theories and analytical capabilities. We are especially weak at knowing what happens when “green” stuff scales up to meet global needs (e.g., corn-based ethanol).

But who has the time to delve into the data and data sources used by all the third parties cropping up?  GreenSeal, GoodGuide, EPA’s DfE, soon UL and GoodHousekeeping…  Who vets these guys?

Relying on tweets from assorted opinion-makers to make green decisions is scary. The herd follows celebrity and the best PR wins – with wild swings in what is considered the right thing to do this minute. I’m biased toward the scientific method – informed experts assessing data, trying to prove each other wrong and eventually drawing conclusions in informed public forums. Afterword, real world pragmatists try to figure out how to apply the findings. It’s not quick, but it’s the best we have.
Where does the data come from anyway?  Someone has to go out and measure and record it and someone has to look at it.  Right now companies are bombarded by questionnaires and forms from customers and government agencies and third party certifiers and NGOs – all of whom want to see different data in their own formats and granularity.  It takes time and effort and maybe capital expense (measuring equipment and computers) to do all that.

Worse thing is that the data is outdated the second you collect it.  New data is appearing everywhere all the time. New ways of collecting data are appearing daily.  We can’t collect it all and we can’t absorb and analyze it all instantaneously.   It’s like those walls of TV screens, each on a different channel or movie going on fast forward!

“Transparency” as such is a meaningless objective. At best, we can try to figure out when we know “enough” to make a practical, but temporary decision until we learn more about whether we are going in the right direction.

Transparency vs property rights. Right now our system of reward for investing in product development is allowing proprietary information to be held confidential and controlled by the developer. Take that away by forcing companies to reveal to everyone what their products are made of, how they make them and to whom they market them will allow their competitors to get a free ride. It will stop innovation. And paychecks. We need a way to encourage people to invent better products and processes while ensuring that product stewardship is ongoing. I believe it is possible to characterize risk information without revealing business confidential information – – but it’s going to take a lot of stakeholder work to make that happen. (patents? – they are a joke in this flat world.)

I don’t know the answer – we are just going to have to keep churning and seeing if we coalesce around some reasonable approaches.  But that doesn’t mean that we can freeze on a standard set of data requirements.  We have to stay flexible and adapt to new knowledge and understanding – otherwise we are going to keep piling up unintended adverse consequences we have to back out of.  For that reason alone we need to be more willing to share information so we make better temporary decisions.  But we cannot demand so much effort to get every bit of information from everyone that we won’t have time to develop needed solutions.

What is the right information and how much is enough to keep us moving in the right direction?  I don’t need Google Earth to show me every molecule between here and where I want to go, I just need to know the best routes to get there.

Leave a reply