Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies: Lessons in Radical Transparency

We buy natural products because they represent our values, our concerns, and our aspirations. We have an affiliation with these brands; their products are badges of our identity.

So when brands and products we affiliate with stumble—whether it be Apple’s recent supplier audits that revealed sub-minimum wage pay and records of underage labor, or Whole Foods coming under fire for its sourcing of organic products from China, or the recent revelation and lawsuit that some omega-3 fish oil supplements may contain toxic levels of polychlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs—known carcinogens that were banned in 1979)—the fallout is often catastrophic because customer expectations are that much higher.

Bad news travels fast. We live in a transparent world where people have access to information like never before. Radical transparency can be a double-edged sword. For behemoths such as Apple, Whole Foods, and the $1 billion fish oil industry, cynics are waiting for them to fail. On the other hand, especially for small to medium-size natural companies, conscious consumers are rooting for them to succeed. There are tremendous opportunities to use transparency to define your brand, break through your category and emerge as an innovative thought leader. For companies who have long been committed to ensuring their products’ purity and safety, there is power in openness.

Be proactive.

Within the natural industry, there are consistently new warnings—a new chemical compound to be “free of” or tainted ingredients from what you considered a trusted source. Whatever warnings may surface, the actions you take will define you. Make good use of media relations and social media to be at the forefront of the fight against new threats. Align your brand with the solution rather than the mistake.

Be real.

Be honest about mistakes and forthright about how you will make things right. On its “Road to Responsibility,” Patagonia talks openly about their missteps. They began sourcing products from factories that could produce them at a lower cost: “We lost track of who we were doing business with and what working conditions were like in many of our factories,” said a company executive. Recognizing the importance of the social and environmental impact of its supply chain, the apparel brand launched the Footprint Chronicles, in which it traces the development of its products from design through fiber creation to construction to shipment to its warehouse.

Be human.

This is what is often lacking in business and what people truly desire—integrity and honesty. Be a proactive “Reactivist.” You don’t have to be perfect, just show that together we can all make a difference. Owning up to your shortcomings gives you greater integrity and trustworthiness. And that trust will give you long-term brand allegiance. Most importantly, do what you say you’ll do. Conscious consumers want a dialogue that is open and real. Yes, there may be considerable costs to re-source or reformulate your product—think of that as a marketing investment—you are ultimately building trust and longevity. You were first in the industry to recognize the issue, and first to develop a breakthrough solution. That’s a tremendous story to be able to tell—and it’s yours.