The Movement towards Radical Transparency

Tonight on his PBS show, Bill Moyers asked whether the movement towards “radical transparency” that Daniel Goleman describes in his new book Ecological Intelligence is really happening. Goleman responded by pointing to a generational shift that shows younger people not only care more about environmental and social issues, but that they also have the social networking prowess to spread this information.

I agree with Goleman, but believe the movement towards greater transparency is happening even faster than this generational change.

As just one example, over the last month there has been a major shift towards greater transparency by household products companies here in the US. Historically, household chemical manufacturers in the US did not have to disclose their ingredients unless they fell within very specific parameters (e.g., active ingredients above a certain concentration that are known to be toxic). This means most chemicals do NOT have to be listed.

To understand the irrationality of our current product labeling system, go into your bathroom and look at your liquid hand soap and then look at the harshest chemical you can find – maybe your toilet bowl or tile cleaner. Notice that the hand soap – which is classified as a personal care product – lists all of its ingredients, in order of concentration. While the much stronger household cleaning chemicals likely lists one or even zero ingredients.

Given the opportunity to not be transparent with their customers about the chemicals in their products, most companies choose to hide behind a veil of marketing claims, and more recently green claims.

But this is very rapidly changing. Without any new government regulation, but some important non-profit efforts (check out the campaign of Women’s Voices for the Earth), mainstream companies are following the lead of smaller green companies, and disclosing their ingredients voluntarily. Clorox recently announced that they are disclosing all of their ingredients on their website. SC Johnson followed suit. As did Method Home.

[Let me know if you know of any other companies releasing ingredient data recently.]

These companies had previously argued that their ingredient lists were confidential business information, and that they couldn’t disclose them because of a threat of lost market share. I believe these same companies are now realizing that the real threat to their sales and their brands is from being considered non-transparent. As they say, the cover-up is often worse than the crime in the US.

This is just one of many examples of increased transparency in the marketplace. I will be discussing more of these cases in the coming weeks.

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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6 Responses to The Movement towards Radical Transparency

  1. Congratulation for the movement "Radical Trasparency", is a revolution customers oriented. Usually customers are the "prey"… but with the "Radical Trasparency" the customer is the "predator" and the companies the "prey".

    In Italy we are really far to this idea, to this customers consciousness…

  2. Regarding Household cleaning product ingredient disclosure, I’ve been dedicated to ensure the use of safe fragrance ingredient usage for the past several years. A real breakthrough may take place next month at http://www.sustainablefragrances2009.com. I’ll be attending as a member of the Fragrance Technical Team co-sponsored by CleanGredients.org and EPA’s DfE group; and as a blog reporter. The Fragrance industry trade associations have cooperated with the DfE but have resisted the full scope of ingredient restrictions that will effect creativity, supply chain management, some igredient Trade secret diclosure and the marketing of "natural igredients" that are safe for personal product usage but are environmentally toxic for products that are rinsed down the drain. This meeting will start the transistion to safe chemical management by an industry that enjoyed fantastic growth because of odor attractiveness for purchase decisions. Many of the common work horse long lasting fragrance material ingredients are now on the EPA’s emerging group of chemicals of concern because they are found in our waterways. Prevention is key before it is too late.

  3. jenn_lee_ca says:

    I think generational differences also impacts on how they approach information sharing (or hoarding). Millenials tend to believe that all info should be shared. Gen X thinks all information is circumspect until proven. Baby boomers tend to hold onto information and provide pieces of information in "approriate places." All of this is happening in an era where you can "google" anything and find out all that you need. Millenials and Gen X will turn towards the web to find information (Internet, social web)that they need. And with this being the prevalent approach, companies are forced to respond while others are seeing this as being more of a necessity. Ad are becoming irrelevant because people know that the messages are hyped or present only the positives. The whole notion of "googling" is becoming a bigger part of our society/culture. More transparency means access to more information – the argument whether it is good information that will help make an informed decision is another topic that needs to be discussed as well.

  4. Cee Faith says:

    This is the tip of the iceberg, yet a great step I’m happy to finally witness. Now, I’ll be checking in to see how ratings are affected with deeper investigation of product ingredients. Looking for greater accuracy here. I’ve been on a pretty lonely toxin chasing "soapbox" for decades, stemming from many dietary and cosmetic allergies. Many products listed here contain toxins which one can find described in many books available at Amazon.com. Look for the "listmania" lists of Preston C. Enright (Denver) and Prof. Krasnic (Washington, DC) or through Aubrey Organics directly. Why their products–some of the purest on the planet–should rate under Burt’s Bees (owned by Clorox–polluters of major consequence –can you say dioxin?) or Tom’s of Maine, owned by Colgate Palmolive–they still put fluoride in their products–for shame! And get with the program: Propylene Glycol is a cosmetic form of mineral oil found in automatic brake and hydraulic fluid and industrial antifreeze. It kills thousands of animals who are attracted to its apparent sweet taste…it doesn’t take much. It acts by penetrating tissues so "active" ingredients can reach deeper stratae of skin. The Material Safety Data Sheet warns users to avoid skin contact with propylene glycol as this strong skin irritant can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage. Then, we have the rampant use of parabens….etc., ad nauseum.
    Yet, these examples aren’t even addressed as potential offenders.
    No, I am in no way connected to Aubrey or any other company. Just a fanatic for purity. Now, we have to do something about packaging–those darned xenoestrogens are only part of the problem. Anthrosphere = the things that humans make and do. Tsk tsk. We are all responsible for the rectification. Corporate greenwashers get on the goodfoot. We don’t buy your crap anymore.

  5. William Scott says:

    I am new to the good guide and I am an enthusiastic supporter. I did notice that there are many categories of goods that are not represented in the guide: Automotive products, lawn and garden care, building products, and office supplies to name a few. I looked on the guide for information about future plans and found information about a planned fight for increased transparency (yeah) but nothing about plans for inclusion of a broader range of product. Also, I would like to be able to filter for unscented products. Thanks for taking my comment.

  6. Ad are becoming irrelevant because people know that the messages are hyped or present only the positives. The whole notion of "googling" is becoming a bigger part of our society/culture. More transparency means access to more information – the argument whether it is good information that will help make an informed decision is another topic that needs to be discussed as well.

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