The Transparency Paradox
The more information we have, the less we trust it, and the more information we demand. That feedback loop is driving consumers and corporations into new terrain.
By Renee Morad, July 13, 2017
More information does not mean more knowledge. In fact, David Helfand has spent much of his career thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of life in the information age. And Helfand, a professor of astronomy at Columbia University and author of A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of the Mind, sees our information-overloaded lives running headlong into some growing pains.
The gist of his assessment goes like this. The internet makes information more accessible than it has ever been. Sorting through all that information — some good, some bad — is confusing, and engenders distrust in distant sources, such as institutions and academic experts, and to rely instead on sources closer to home, such as friends and likeminded peers. That distrust of distant sources fuels the demand for ever more information, which keeps the cycle going. The thirst for more information, of course, is not all bad. In fact, this cycle provides an unprecedented opportunity for corporations to better understand and serve their customers.
From Data to Distrust
Each day, humans generate at least 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, according to a 2015 IBM study. Today, we satisfy our insatiable appetites for knowledge with information that’s virtually unlimited, ubiquitous and free. But go back in time, and you might remember a different story. In many regards, information was limited, relatively difficult to access, and often expensive.
“The difficulty we face every day is that everyone has access to the internet,” says Helfand. “They can publish literally anything they want, regardless of whether it has any relation to reality, and they can propagate it effectively.”
Given the democratization of information, waves of unedited content continue to surface and consumers are tasked with the responsibility of analyzing this information and deciphering fact from fiction — a role at which they frequently fail. “Often, people form their opinion before collecting their facts,” Helfand says. “It’s very easy to go on the internet and find a host of references that support your point of view.” And that point of view can be almost anything.
With so much information at our fingertips and easily spread among our social networks, it’s increasingly difficult to identify credible experts from the masses.
Also, in a world shaped by a belief that everyone has a right to their opinion and that their opinion is as good as anybody else’s, says Helfand, “the fact that experts have devoted their lives to studying a particular issue and have a deep understanding of it is completely undercut.” He jokes, “People tend to think: Scientists? Why should we trust them? They’re sort of locked away in a weird cult that I’m not a part of and don’t want to be a part of.”
Worse still, losing faith in experts fuels even bigger problems. As misinformation rises, so does distrust. As Helfand suggests, “there’s distrust in experts, there’s also distrust in institutions.” The only way that companies can address this distrust is to be increasingly open and honest about what they do.
Consumers — accustomed to having so much information at their fingertips — share a burning desire for greater transparency in everything from what’s behind political issues to what ingredients can be found in food, vaccines or household-cleaning products. While some companies and institutions are rising to the challenge of providing this information, Helfand encourages the consumer to rise to the challenge of carefully vetting what this information means.
“The transfer of information is no longer enough,” Helfand says. “Our educational system needs to be completely redesigned to teach people how to construct their own knowledge, how to access and validate information and then combine it in interesting ways, using tools from a variety of intellectual fields, to create something of value for themselves or for society.”
So, companies and customers must work together. By being transparent about how they make products, companies can help people educate themselves, but both must do their part. For companies, becoming more transparent is the only reasonable solution. In fact, those that understand the cycle — increasing information fueling the desire for even more details — can build deep relationships with their customers by being more open about what’s in a product and how it’s made. Companies that ignore this, do so at their own peril.
A Time for Transparency
In the past decade, SC Johnson accelerated its progress on transparency to make it easier than ever for customers to know what they are buying. Here are a few of the key milestones.
Launches a U.S. ingredient disclosure program, including specific listings of preservatives and naming dyes by trade names
Publishes its Exclusive Fragrance Palette, which is the complete list of approved fragrances for products
Publishes a list of restricted ingredients, most of which meet legal and regulatory requirements, but not company standards
Shares more than 99.9% of the ingredients in most product formulas
Launches European ingredient disclosure program, including more than 99.9% of the ingredients in most product formulas, and Glade Fresh Citrus Blossoms collection comes out with 100% fragrance transparency
Announces that it will disclose 368 potential dermal allergens in its products
This article was created for SC Johnson by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine’s board of editors.