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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Public Trust – The Role of Business in Society?

I have spent some time listening to the discussions between climate change skeptics and proponents. One of my main takeaways is that there is rarely a thorough understanding of the science of the issue. Proponents can quote scientists and so can skeptics. I don’t believe that many of us though (myself included) have really done our own analysis of all the research papers and, even if we had, that we would know how to reach our own judgment on the sensitivity analysis, scenarios and balance of risks.

Most of us, on both sides, reach our conclusions based on whose advice we trust.

I feel the same as I follow the debate about the Gulf oil spill. How much oil is coming from the well? Could this incident have happened to any oil company or was BP more exposed to an accident like this than its competitors? Should we be using more dispersants or less? I hear conflicting opinions. The answers to these questions require a complex analysis and understanding of the issues and I don’t have the time or expertise to research each one for myself. So, I think that, as with climate change, we develop our individual opinions based on whose opinion we trust; a newspaper, a political leader, a company, a friend.

In a recent discussion about consumer purchase decisions at the 2010 Solutions Lab in D.C., I participated in a discussion on how consumers make purchase decisions. Few of us (again, myself included), look at the detailed sustainability credentials of a specific product. At best, we develop a level of trust in certain brands and incorporate that into our buying decisions.

This is why I think the trust in large organizations, government and companies especially, is so important. That is where we develop many of our opinions. And when that trust is low it is very unsettling for civil society. If this is correct, then companies have a responsibility to earn and maintain public trust, not just because their business depends on it, but because it is part of their role in society too.

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