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Our Insights 11 Feb 2013

The Future of Transparency: Trust B Trumps Trust A

By Lorraine Smith

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.

The challenge with Trust B is that not many companies are ready to come right out and say, “We need to make significant, fundamental changes to how we do business, but we don’t really know how it’s going to go. But trust us, we’re working on it.”

There are some who are inching towards Trust B (and communicating elements of it, in their reports and otherwise). Whether through the B-Corp movement, or big ideas at major companies like Unilever, Puma, or business model rethinks at manufacturers like Novelis or Interface, there are very encouraging signs that the corporate sector is shifting to a shared (versus shareholder) value model.

The beginnings of a Great Transformation, as some are calling it, are taking shape and reporting will likely provide the record, to a degree.

Reporting might (repeat: might) have helped to bring this about in its early days, but it doesn’t seem likely that it will accelerate the shift towards a sustainable, generative economy.

How then to achieve this deeper level of trust among stakeholders, this Trust B that really gets to the heart of the matter? Certainly it will be crucial to continue providing transparent, meaningful information. However it will most likely involve making systemic, structural changes to the business that indicate the company isn’t just accountable, but it offers a net benefit for all stakeholders. When the truth about that tale is told, it will inevitably generate trust.

If the airline had been completely upfront at the time of booking, ensuring everyone who bought a ticket had a seat, if they had a fare structure that discouraged people from bringing an unwieldy amount of luggage onto the plane, if the flight crew were demonstrating at every turn that enjoyment and safety were their main objectives, the CEO wouldn’t need to bother trying to convince us.

It’s the ultimate story-telling adage: Show, don’t tell. Rephrased for the corporate transparency crowd seeking to increase trust: Be, don’t account.On the road to sustainability, Trust B definitely trumps Trust A.

This article originally appeared as part of SustainAbility’s Changing Tack column on

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