December 10, 2012

Transparency May Lose Battles, But It Will Win the War

Now that the long national nightmare of 24/7 presidential election coverage is well behind us, we can get around to discussing some other important voting results. In particular, I've been thinking about a result that got much less attention than it deserved: the defeat of Proposition 37 in California.

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The ballot initiative would have required food companies to put a label on packaging if they usedgenetically modified organisms (GMOs). While on the surface Prop 37 was a heated debate about science, food, and health, in some sense the real battle was over transparency.

The debates on Prop 37 were loud and hard-fought (see some links to a range of opinions on the matter here). Most of the largest food and chemical companies were against this law and, logically of course, the well-known organic food brands were for it.

I don't want to debate the complicated science on GMOs. Instead, my point is that, in the long run, it may not matter that this ballot initiative didn't pass. If companies think the defeat of Prop 37 will stem the transparency tide, they will be sorely disappointed. And further more, it's not good for these big brands to be against transparency. The battle creates an enduring image of stonewalling: When companies fight so hard, it's easy for consumers to wonder, regardless of the science, "If GMOs are safe, why hide it from me?"

It's not like food companies are against all labels; they mostly embraced "front-of-package" labeling initiatives when they could promote the (supposed) health benefits of their products. But with GMOs, it was a very different story.

Even if the food companies believe that science is on their side, they're facing an uphill battle. One principle of a sustainability mindset, as my co-author and I described in our book Green to Gold, is that "Feelings are Facts." Meaning all the science in the world won't matter in some situations, especially when it comes to food.

This reality — that perceptions often matter more than facts — may be hard for science-driven companies or people to take. I'd certainly prefer that we make decisions based on the preponderance of evidence (climate change anyone?). But this particular proposed law was not about adjudicating the safety of genetically modified food (here's the actual language of the bill); it was about giving people information so they could make their own decisions.

For that reason, I'm a bit surprised at the outcome (53 percent voted against it), especially since we're all used to looking at food labels. Imagine trying to eat a healthy diet without having nutritional labels, which make no judgments. Even though sugar has no nutritional value, for example, listing the grams of sugar on packaging doesn't actually judge whether you should consume it. The label leaves that decision up to consumers. The fears of a GMO label being a judgment that would force food companies to find substitutes, I think, are overblown (people already eat a lot of what they know is bad for them, let alone stuff that just might be).

Regardless, I'd like to see companies affected by the rising demand for more information — that is, pretty much all organizations — use the opportunity to communicate with consumers and business customers about what's in every product, what they believe to be true about the ingredients, and what science they have to back it up (see SC Johnson's transparency site as one very good move in this direction).

Perhaps, as some moderate voices have said, Prop 37 was poorly constructed. But either way, its defeat is a blip in the arc of history. The power of big data, openness, and transparency is a relentless tide that's only getting stronger.

Even if current law doesn't mandate disclosure, there will be workarounds as companies likeGoodGuide provide more information about products, in real time, on any mobile device. This is just one example of how the world is becoming more open every day. Instead of playing little Dutch boy putting fingers in the proverbial dike, companies should get proactive and embrace the change.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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