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Becoming Better Backstory Detectives

This article was written by Alex Steffen in November 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Grey%20Matters.jpgThe things we own have mysterious pasts. Tracing the backstories of most goods and services involves exploring maze-like patterns of relationship and effect. But this detective work is essential, since by solving this mystery we might prevent a massive intergenerational crime: the destruction of the planet's climate, ecosystems and communities.

Outdoor gear purveyor Patagonia is one company working as hard as anyone to figure out how to change. Take The Footprint Chronicles, an exploration of the backstories of five representative Patagonia products. It's a really well-done site, with compelling graphics, thoughtful explanations, even a blog, which appears to be pretty open and transparent in its discussion.

One of the products I own: a wool sweater. The Footprint Chronicles traces the origin of the wool back to New Zealand. Then it is woven in Japan, sewn into a sweater in California, and eventually departs for retail outlets from a distribution center in Nevada. Patagonia takes at least a brief look along the way at the materials involved, the energy used and the labor standards practiced. It's nowhere near as detailed as some might like: it'd improve the usefulness of the site if you could really drill down into their data about these processes. Patagonia's not a perfect company, but this is still one of the best efforts at this sort of thing I've yet seen.

A different, potentially very cool approach is being taken by Nau (a Worldchanging sponsor who we picked because we believe in their approach, so we're not objective here) and their Grey Matters site, an attempt to explain "the rationale behind our decisions on a variety of subjects, from our choice to use PLA [Polylactic acid, a corn-based plastic] to our choices about where our products are made."

It's good and useful and honest information. The section on wool, for instance, discusses the issues from animal welfare and land management to fabric processing and source traceability (how do you know if you really have the good stuff?), and freely admits, for instance, that "at this time we are unable to trace the source of our wool... beyond the vendor level."

Where the Nau site fails to live up to the company's standards is in it's openness. No data at all is shared. No public feedback is published. Comments go to an email address rather than a discussion area.

It's a shame, and a lost opportunity, because I know (from first-hand knowledge) that Nau's folks are deeply engaged in serious work on knowing and improving the backstories of their products (see, for instance, Nau's retail concept). But a site that might have engaged customers in a collaborative journey towards sustainability instead leans a bit towards corporate communications -- revealing and interesting, but still one-way and static.

The answer to the challenge of increased citizen attention to sustainability and social responsibility is greater transparency -- an aggressive, honest, reasonably complete recounting of a company's backstory as it currently understands it, with an on-going dialog about its goals and the trail of clues it's following to get there. Perfection isn't needed -- just a willingness to admit faults and tell your story well.

The shape of a sustainable company is still a mystery. What folks in the corporate world need to remember is that in any mystery, we all want to root for the detectives.

Image credit: flickr/stevemonty

The Footprint Chronicles, Grey Matters is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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