The Open Brand

Consumers are becoming more concerned about how the products they’re choosing impact society and the environment. Increasing consumer demand for things like ethical production methods and lower carbon footprints is driving brands to become more transparent and accountable.

In an effort to understand this trend, in 2010 Monocle Magazine came up with the Proximity Consumption Index, or PCI, which generally asserts that the more intimate the consumer’s connection with a product, the more interested they will be in knowing its origin, how it was made, who made it, under what conditions, etc. Products like the food you eat, the garments you wear and the beds you sleep on would be ranked high on the PCI.

If one accepts this theory, it’s not hard to understand the growth of a company like Whole Foods Market. Now employing over 50,000 employees, the company has built its reputation on solid core values, including transparency. As stated on their website, Whole Foods seeks:

“to create transparency from ‘farm to fork’ with respect to production, planning, sourcing, ingredients, product safety and efficacy in order to bring to market the safest, highest quality products available. We work with our supplier partners in eliminating all unnecessary production and distribution costs to help ensure the best possible price.”

Transparency from farm to fork is a powerful statement and provides assurance to Whole Foods’ customers, even if most of them don’t deeply investigate the particulars through the open channels of information that the company readily makes available. Whole Foods sells products that people put into their bodies. It doesn’t get much more intimate than that. Because of this, their customers want to know that those products are safe and that the system that delivered them is sustainable.

In apparel, few companies exceed Patagonia’s example. Their mission for corporate social responsibility is unmatched in the industry and they go to great efforts to promote transparency in their business affairs.

One way Patagonia lives this promise is through The Footprint Chronicles campaign, which invites consumers to track the impact of a specific Patagonia product from design through delivery. Transparency of any sort takes guts but especially in the apparel industry where the sourcing and manufacturing are all done off shore in far away places that often have lax labor laws and poor environmental standards.

Additionally, a supplier that a brand may partner with can, and often does, sub-contract out part of the work, making it even more difficult to know the conditions and methods of a production environment. Patagonia does a good job of explaining the effort they put into establishing and maintaining trusting, open relationships with reliable production partners overseas, that share their values.

The Footprint Chronicles gives anyone the chance to go online and see for themselves by taking a tour of facilities, meeting key people involved in the process, etc. Perhaps most impressive of all is Patagonia’s down to earth communication style. They speak in an honest, open, authentic voice and you don’t get the feeling that you’re being greenwashed. They go as far as to recognize how they’re falling short of their ideals with the production of some products and are open about the unavoidable constraints that prevented them from achieving all of their success criteria to meet the triple bottom line (social, environmental and economic).

Like the clothes people wear, and the food that nourishes their bodies, the bed they sleep in carries a more intimate connection than other products in their life because it has a higher impact on their personal well-being. Custom Comfort Mattresses takes pride in following traditional, artisan bed making methods. Nearly a lost art, making beds the old way produces a finer quality product that lasts much longer. CCM encourages customers to come down to their factory in Orange County, CA any time they like to see the operation in action, meet the employees and learn about what really goes into a good bed including the difference between various materials, where they come from, how they are handled, etc. The tour is highly educational and does well to assure customers that their investment in a Custom Comfort Mattress is a smart one to make. But CCM could not deliver this type of transparency if they didn’t stand behind every aspect of their business and their people.

Transparency is a boon for any brand that has nothing to hide and does much to build trust, loyalty and advocacy. People desire openness and honesty but unfortunately have accepted the fact they can’t count on it often enough. When it does happen, they are delighted and much more forgiving of areas that need improvement, as long as the brand is pursuing them in earnest. As more brands focus on social responsibility and actually live the promise, they will want to share that truth with the world. And as brands become increasingly transparent, consumers will grow more skeptical of the ones that aren’t, leaving them to wonder what they have to hide.