Taylor Gray, Ph.D.
The world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens. I remain focused on developing meaningful and actionable insights from empirical data in pursuit of a better world.
As consumers, we want to make good decisions that lead to a better world, but it is not always easy to get the information we need to make this happen.
"When we choose one brand over another we are effectively casting a vote of support for how the company behind the brand does business."
We know that we each make numerous decisions each and every day and the interactions of the outcomes of all these decisions shape the world as we know it and as we want it. The world is always changing, and by making informed decisions, based on your values, we can guide this change toward progress rather than simply chaos.
We make a choice every time we make a purchase. When we choose one brand over another we are effectively casting a vote of support for how the company behind the brand does business--for how it operates and how it fits within society, or, in other words, its degree of corporate citizenship.
Although some of these decisions may be made out of habit or simply convenience, they are nonetheless of paramount importance as corporate citizenship is one of the most important forces shaping the world today--no other modern institution is as adept at catalyzing and/or adapting to change as is the corporation. Progress is born from change and companies are vehicles for change, and it is critical to remember that consumers are the driving force of these vehicles …even if other forces would like us to forget about this fact.
Consumer agency can be powerful, but it must be fueled by reliable information--all decisions result in change, but only informed decisions are likely to result in progress. Some companies are transparent and provide reliable information about their degree of citizenship--their approaches to employment, sustainability, human rights, supply chain management, local manufacturing, and so on. Unfortunately, far too many companies are not as transparent and do not provide reliable information.
Most companies make it hard for consumers to get the information they want. From purposeful attempts to mislead consumers through greenwashing, or omitting key information in hopes of benefiting from a halo effect, or even the less nefarious yet equally misleading implementation of poorly developed communication strategies, companies typically seek to control rather than share information. This is a disservice to consumers and to companies themselves.
"Why does it have to be so difficult to make good choices?"
When companies are not forthcoming with the information we need--and most aren’t--consumers are faced with a dilemma. Either give in to the frustration and make a quick choice with the underwhelming information at hand, or embrace the frustration and use it to fuel your own search for the information you actually want and need.
Obviously, how we resolve this dilemma for each purchase we make changes based on our own circumstances and, perhaps most importantly, with how much time we have available to make a decision. Sarah Kaplan, writing in the Washington Post, succinctly summarized a few tips for shopping sustainably; readers found the tips quite helpful, although most did not fail to notice how much time and effort would be required of them to actually implement many of these tips.
When we turn to outside sources of information to assist us in our decision-making process we must remember that not all information is created equal...and, as we live in the information age, there is no shortage of information. In this case, it is up to the consumer to determine if the information they find is appropriate for their needs.
Ranking Information Sources
Outside sources--or third-party providers--can be understood as varying one from the other based on the quality and the format of the information they provide.
Quality relates to the degree to which the information being provided fulfills the need for which the information is being sought. Information quality can be further divided into the concepts of applicability and accuracy, and these can be best assessed by asking yourself two questions:
- What elements of this topic of interest do I care about?
- How is this topic being considered/measured?
Good quality information will satisfy both of these questions; mediocre quality will satisfy one or the other, but not both; and poor quality information will satisfy neither.
"Applicability is a key component of information quality, and it is critical to note that the concept of applicability is entirely based on what you care about."
Applicability …or, What do I Care About?
Applicability is a relative measure between the context of the provider and that of the receiver. Many product attributes and elements of corporate citizenship are conceptualized quite broadly, and this leaves plenty of opportunity for miscommunication and differing understandings. If you consider elements such as sustainability, social justice, inequality, local--all top concerns today in discussions of corporate citizenship--it is quite easy to see how each of these elements are multi-faceted, complex, and interdisciplinary in nature, and hence each open to various interpretations and implementations.
I can understand sustainability as relating to the environmental and social impact of production across a company’s entire supply chain and actively seek such information to support my decision-making process. Someone else may understand sustainability more narrowly and frame it predominantly as relating to a company’s direct carbon footprint and actively provide such information to support other people’s decision-making processes. At first glance this should be a suitable relationship--I am looking for information about the sustainability of different companies and you are providing information about the sustainability of different companies. It is only when we explore our needs deeper that we realize that this relationship has only a low degree of applicability--we are both talking about sustainability, but we each care about different elements of sustainability and so the information you are providing is not fully applicable to my context.
Applicability is not only a concern when dealing with complex and multi-faceted topics. One of the more common approaches to finding product information is to search for ‘best of…’-type lists, such as ‘best running shoes’, ‘best sustainable shoe brands’, ‘most ethical shoe companies’, and so on. I use these examples purposefully because I love running--from coaching, to researching products and technologies, to actually running and racing--I love all elements of the sport.
When I do a search for these three examples of ‘best of’ lists and open the top three links for each, I find that I do not agree with most of their selections. It’s not that the lists are not made with care and attention, but rather that these lists are focused on criteria which I do not value as highly as the people making the lists apparently do. So again, the information is not of poor quality, but it is simply not applicable to my situation. I care about a shoe’s durability more than its colors and I care about the sustainability of the foam and rubber supply chains more than I care about the recyclability of the box the shoes are packaged in. We are both talking about the best shoes, or the most sustainable shoe companies, but we are each defining what this means differently.
Try this for yourself. Choose a topic or product that you are an expert in, that you are deeply interested in, or that you have strong opinions about. Now do a search for ‘best of X’ and see if the first few links bring-up information that you agree with. Would this information be applicable to your situation? Consider that even if you find this information largely inapplicable, this is the information that another consumer that may not be as informed in this topic as you are would receive and likely incorporate into their decision-making process.
Applicability is a key component of information quality, and it is critical to note that the concept of applicability is entirely based on what you care about. Information which is applicable to you may not be applicable to me. When searching for third-party information to support your decision-making processes, there are three principal ways to make sure you are dealing with applicable information:
- Be specific in your searches for information and add context to the type of information you are seeking. Search terms such as sustainable, local, and ethical are broad and open to interpretation, but issues such as palm oil-free, animal cruelty free, made in Baltimore (for example), etc...are much more specific and likely to return applicable information.
- Engage an information provider which customizes its results specific to your interests. Information providers which ask you about what you care about, or which observe what it is you care about, can then provide information you want and ensure that it is applicable to your specific interests and needs.
- Prioritize information providers which are transparent in their process. Providers which clearly define their understandings of the various concepts and are clear in their criteria and methodologies afford you an opportunity to judge for yourself if the results are applicable to your situation.
Clearly, not all information will be applicable...but, it is important to remember that in an attention economy, most information providers will want you to think they are applicable to your situation, whatever your situation may be. Only you know what you care about and so only you know what is applicable to you.
"If information is valuable, then accurate information is priceless."
Accuracy...or, What is Actually Measured?
Information providers will always position information as relating to some specific focus. Some providers will stay true to this focus while others sometimes wander. Accuracy is a measure of the degree to which information actually provides insight upon the subject under consideration.
If we open a weather forecast app there is an implied focus that the information will pertain to the anticipated weather to come. If the app provides information which does not match the reality to come, then we would typically consider it to be inaccurate, and likely search for a more accurate app.
If information is valuable, then accurate information is priceless. Yet the accuracy of information can be very difficult for most consumers to decipher. In the above section, we saw how information applicability is measured against what we each care about--this makes it relatively straightforward to determine the applicability of information. Information accuracy, on the other hand, is measured against an objective external reality--this makes it quite complex to determine as doing so requires a careful consideration of research methodologies.
In your vision of progress and corporate citizenship you may consider that diversity in employment is critically important and so want to engage companies that demonstrate true leadership in this domain. To determine which companies to support, you could turn to the DiversityInc Top 50 rankings, or the MorningStar Minority Empowerment Scores or the Forbes 100 Best Workplaces for Diversity list. Each one of these sources would be applicable to you, but they are not all equal in accuracy.
All three of these products are all purportedly focused on the same issue yet all three return different results--clearly they cannot all be equal in accuracy. Thankfully, these three sources do provide access to their methodologies and what we see is that:
- The DiversityInc. results are premised on a voluntary survey completed by executives/senior management at US companies with at least 1,000 employees and which request to participate in the survey.
- The Morningstar results are premised on data reported by companies through shareholder disclosures and regulatory filings.
- The Forbes results are premised on a voluntary survey completed by employees at US companies with at least 1,000 employees.
All three providers rely on distinct methodologies and all three are sound in theory and in practice. Yet Microsoft is first among the top-15 on the Morningstar rankings, but absent altogether from the other two. In 2019, AT&T was first on the DiversityInc. list but 75th on the Forbes list. So which one is most accurate?
To answer this question, we need to dig even further. DiversityInc. would be most accurate as a measure of diversity in employment as defined by employers; and Forbes would be most accurate as a measure of diversity in employment as defined by employees. Unfortunately neither of these two sources present their information as being focused at such levels of detail, rather they claim to be presenting lists of the most diverse companies, full stop.
On the other hand, Morningstar would be most accurate as a measure of diversity in employment among publicly-traded companies. Further review of Morningstar reveals that they are focused on providing information about publicly traded companies (and other securities). In this sense the Morningstar information would be the most accurate as the information that is delivered most closely reflects the actual focus of the information being delivered. All three sources provide applicable information in this example, but one provides more accurate information than the other two--and this is a factor in determining the quality of the information being provided.
To gauge the accuracy of information, a consumer must be able to access and understand the methodology from which this information arises. Transparency is key in our ability to determine accuracy.
"The information we all need to be able to make the consumer decisions we want to make exists, but accessing it is certainly not always easy or efficient."
Information quality refers largely to the content of information while format, as the other consideration when judging information sources, refers largely to how the information is communicated and engaged. To put it another way, quality refers to the content of information and format refers to structure of information.
Reviewing a wide diversity of information providers, we can see that information is often arranged as:
- An independent certification scheme, such as Fair Trade Certified;
- A “best of” list, such as Outdoor GearLab;
- Conclusive opinions and recommendations of experts and independent testers, such as EWG;
- A searchable database, such as Consumer Reports;
- A comparison of multiple tester perspectives, such as Believe in the Run;
- An in-depth essay/blog/vlog exploring a user review, such as Unbox Therapy;
- Many variations which include elements of some or all of the above, such as Two Wheeling Tots.
Each of these approaches to communicating information is a format. There are pros and cons to each format but there is no objectively ‘best’ format for third-party information to follow. We will each have our own preferences for format and what matters most is that we are able to get the information we are seeking in a manner we each find engaging. If you do not enjoy, or understand, the format of a particular information provider you are unlikely to make use of the information being provided--regardless of the quality of the information--nor to return to this provider for additional information time and again.
Motive is a third-party information provider and we are working closely with users to ensure our delivery format is efficient and enjoyable for as many people as possible, but we also know it will not be the ‘best’ for absolutely everyone--in the end, the ‘best’ format comes down to personal tastes, preferences, and circumstances.
A Final (and Quick) Note on Format
When considering issues of format we must also be aware of revenue models of information providers. Some sources may make information free of charge to users, some are ad revenue supported, some profit through affiliate marketing programs, some charge a user subscription, some collect donations, and so on.
These different delivery formats may represent considerations for the quality of information being provided. No one model is best and there are pros and cons to each. Non-profit models are not inherently better than for-profit models; ad revenue supported models are not inherently more independent than affiliate marketing-supported models...but each model does represent considerations toward the quality of the information being provided depending upon how it is actually implemented and developed. It is important for consumers to be aware of these different models and how these may be of consequence for the quality of the information they are engaging. (And this is a discussion we will return to in a future blog as it is deserving of more in-depth consideration.)
The world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens and consumer demand is the most powerful driver pushing companies to be better corporate citizens. Consumer agency has the power to lead progress, but it must be fueled by informed decisions.
Yet most companies make it hard for consumers to get the information they need and want, or that they can trust. This leaves many of us turning to outside sources of information to support our decision-making processes...when we have the time to actually do so.
Compounding this situation is the reality that not all outside sources of information are equal. Information varies based on the format by which it is engaged and by the quality with which it is produced, and quality, in turn, varies according to the applicability and the accuracy of the information being communicated.
We live in the age of information. The information we all need to be able to make the consumer decisions we want to make exists, but accessing it is certainly not always easy or efficient.
We understand how difficult and time-consuming the process of finding reliable, credible, and properly-formatted information--or high quality information--can be. We developed Motive to do this for you. In our next two-part series of blogs, we will explore how Motive engages with information to do just this.
Information fuels progress--It should not be difficult to make good choices.
Motive is building RealScore from insights like these. Our Beta program is launching soon...Reserve your seat now!