The future of transparency: Trust B trumps Trust A

On a recent in-flight experience, the airline’s CEO started off the safety video by saying in smoothly scripted terms that his company wants to make every passenger’s experience enjoyable and safe. Really? We had just stood in the jetway as “excess” carry on baggage was rerouted to be checked, after having waited at the gate as “an excess” of passengers were asked to forgo their seats in return for a voucher due to overbooking. These are admittedly First World problems, but they’re not enjoyable. Does the CEO know that his words are more likely to trigger irony than trust?

It reminded me of what happens in the sustainability reporting field all too often. These are efforts to account for a vision, rather than be it.

In the mid-1990’s the concept of producing a sustainability report began to take hold, and it has grown steadily ever since. That is, if we believe “grown” means “more companies have been producing reports.” We have certainly done that.

The impetus behind reporting was the belief that to shift business along the sustainability continuum, an increase in trust among stakeholders was necessary. Further, an increase in transparency was required to foster this trust. Has trust of companies grown? Not really. There is plenty of data indicating that companies today are among the least trusted among a wide array of stakeholders.

Yet the need for companies to improve their sustainability impacts has only increased since the dawn of reporting, as several very real concerns about our collective prospects can be tied to lack of action or poor decisions by business (see climate change, economic meltdown, etc.). So the need for trust has only increased. Does that mean there is a need for even more reporting? Or is reporting — for all its internal management systems and external communications benefits — simply not generating the necessary trust to advance the cause?

Maybe it’s doing the trick for Trust A when what we really need is Trust B.

Bear with me.

Trust A happens when a company communicates that it’s going to do something, and it then does it. We can think of it as accounting-related trust. Being accountable, accounting for what happened, and accounting for what might happen going forward.

Trust B is trust like sustainability reporting has never seen it before. It’s about genuine benefit for all concerned that brings about a deeper, almost faith-based trust. It’s about being trustworthy not because a company consistently tells the truth, but because the truth is actually good and on track to be even better.

Next page: How truth engenders trust