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Transparency - part 2

This is a follow-up piece I wrote this for EcoTextileNews - it was published in the October 2020 issue


In a previous article (ETN August issue), I revealed a mild dislike for the word ‘transparency’ (on reflection I’m going to reserve my hatred for more important things – like liquorice, or Monday’s). My point was that we seem to be constantly talking about this thing, this quality that something has – and yet we have no way of objectively assessing it. So, we go round-and-round, asking for more yet frequently getting less.

I also said that the problem was obvious - there are no units for transparency. There are no units for trust or truth either. When you hear the phrase “There’s some truth in that…”, doesn’t it just make you wonder how much? Is truth declining? Post-truth was OUP’s ‘word of the year’ in 2016 “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In a post-truth world, we’re doomed to an Orwellian altered consciousness or endless fact-checking. If we’re thorough in our research we can assess factual accuracy - but that doesn’t mean we found the truth.

Trust might be even harder to measure. At least with truth there is an expected baseline – even if in practice it may not exist. We can sense when something erodes trust – suddenly changing the terms of a complex negotiation for example (Ed: don’t mention Brexit) – but do we notice it being created? Trust is built over long timescales, and humans are poor at spotting gradual change.

There have been attempts to measure trust in organisations. Many readers will be familiar with the acronym GRI, but few will think of the Grunig Relationship Instrument. This suggests that trust is not ‘fundamental’ and is instead made up of three components:

- Competence: The belief that an organization has the ability to do what it says it will do, including the extent to which an organization is seen as being effective, and that it can compete and survive in the marketplace;

- Integrity: The belief that an organization is fair and just;

- Dependability/reliability: The belief that an organization will do what it says it will do, that it acts consistently and dependably.

The Edelman Trust Barometer was first published in 2000. Twenty years later the results were so extraordinary that Edelman updated their assessment model. In 2020, Edelman found that 76% of the trust capital in organisations derives from their ethical behaviour, only 24% from their competence. It turns out that doing the right things is far more important than doing things right nowadays. Richard Edelman goes on to identify the three key items that comprise ethical behaviour – sustainable supply chain, paying fair wages and – you guessed it – transparency. Round we go.

So, is it possible to measure transparency? We don’t measure fog (“how many units of fog do you have”) but we do measure visibility (“Ratray Head to Berwick upon Tweed, northwest 4 to 5, showers, moderate or good”). We derive ‘fogginess’ from lack of visibility.

Similarly, we don’t measure colour (“I’d like three portions of colour please”) but we do measure the quality of colour a specific thing has (hue, lightness, and saturation in a defined ‘colour space’)

A hundred years ago – give or take - I was an analytical chemist. My job was to look for, and measure, stuff you can’t see. For some of those measurements we used sapphire cuvettes to hold the samples – the sapphire was more transparent. And there’s the clue. We didn’t measure transparency - we measured transmission. Just as we measure a decrease in visibility to assess fogginess, we measured how transparent (to a specific wavelength of light) a sample was by how much of that light didn’t pass through.

My point is, we can have units, and usable measurements even if we can’t ‘see’ the quality we’re trying to measure – but we need to be specific, and identify a physical characteristic.

So what does this mean for transparency in our context?

We can measure disclosure – or transmittance - of financial flows between a given industry sector and the local government. This is what the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative sets out to do. We could measure disclosure of commercial relationships – identifying where a brand or retailer gets their product made and how they control production processes – as Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index does.

But measuring visibility doesn’t tell us anything about what can be seen from a specific place – it varies over time, minute-to-minute and year-to-year. Through shared experience, or common understanding, we instinctively know that a “pea souper” in London this morning doesn’t imply a lack of ‘transparency’ in Rome at the same time. Or that the fog will still be there later in the day. We know this quality is dynamic so we measure it locally, frequently - and talk about it constantly. The measuring process must be suited to the characteristic being measured.

Annual disclosure of a factory list is helpful in driving change – but it doesn’t tell me anything about the t-shirt I might wish to buy. Giving me the name of the factory where the fabric for that t-shirt was cut and sewn doesn’t shed any light on where the fibre in the yarn came from - in that specific t-shirt, made last month and shipped last week. Even if I know the ‘universe of possible sources’ of the fibre used in the yarn, the extent of any modern slavery or measure the total carbon emissions required to make it remains a mystery.

In my previous article I complained that the problem with the information about our collective impact on people and planet is that “We’ve chucked the whole lot in a bag and written transparency on the outside”. I suggest we do two things. Firstly, lets scrub out the word transparency and replace it with disclosure. This changes the narrative from the requester to the controller - it centres the discussion around responsibility and accountability. It also changes how we think about the process. Transparency is a simple graduation from more to less, but we tend to ask more structured questions of disclosure: from who to whom, when, about what and checked how? And that helps us with the second suggestion - lets upend the bag. “Organisation <identifier> discloses <data> about <characteristic> every <trigger> to <audience>” is less catchy than “Brand X is really transparent” – but a whole lot more useful.

Louis D Brandeis suggested that ‘sunlight was the best disinfectant’ –an exhortation to put better information into the public domain. Truth may not exist, it may be relative and it may be declining – but the idea of truth is important and it is predicated on reliable disclosure. And contrary to what Jack Nicholson thought in ‘A few good men’, we can handle it


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