To conscientiously decide these questions, consumers would have to consider every ingredient and every process in the corresponding supply chain. For composite products this is a very complex and labour-intensive task. They would, for example, have to ascertain for each ingredient: how much water and land and what fertilizers and pesticides were used, how much CO2 and waste was produced, if all business partners were paid a fair price, and if working conditions were acceptable all through the supply chain. And after that, they would have to compare these results with the ingredients and processes involved with a homemade or home-delivered pizza.
At the moment nobody can really answer these questions. How then should consumers make this and many other decisions if they wish to pursue a sustainable future?
Last year the “Nationale Denktank 2012”, a Dutch think tank consisting of young academics, asked itself this very question. The researchers thought: if we want to put the consumer in the driver’s seat, we have to empower him with relevant, credible and comparable information. They came up with the idea of a “voedselpaspoort” (food passport), a data source where a consumer would find a summary of the environmental impact of every single product, largely comparable with the current nutritional tables.
It is an attractive idea, but honestly I doubt it can be done any time soon. We still have to learn a lot about the impact that agricultural methods have on the environment and how we can reliably measure, assess and compare all impacts. But still, these researchers put their finger on the sore spot. Somehow consumers have to gain enough knowledge to make informed choices.
Today the trust or distrust consumers have in products is primarily the result of corporate or brand reputations conveyed through the media. But that does not mean it is enough to launch a “green advertising campaign”. A sustainability claim is only worth something if it is endorsed by an independent and authoritative source, like a certification institute or an NGO (e.g. like TFT does with SURE technology), and if it is talked about in public and social media.
To accomplish that, to be verifiable and accountable, companies and supply chains have to make their processes transparent. The more transparent, the more trustworthy they become. At first this might be a scary thing. It makes companies and supply chains vulnerable to criticism. But as renowned companies like Nike and Nestlé have already shown, by responding appropriately and calling on your most knowledgeable critics, you can turn a weakness into a competitive strength.
Transparency enables collective learning and cooperation within organisations and supply chains, as well as with the outside world. It’s like making your sustainability process open source so that everyone can come in and help to improve it.
I think, consumers do not expect supply chains to be perfect, since they aren’t perfect themselves, but more and more consumers expect supply chains to be moving on the right sustainable track. And transparency certainly provides the best evidence for that.