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Why the Greens should love Big Brother

Our ever-watched society is good news for the environment.

New Statesman
With more people watching, business become more accountable. Photograph: Getty Images

Last month, Lord Alan Sugar’s digital signage business Amscreen launched the OptimEyes system; screens that will watch you as you watch them - analysing your face and recording your age, gender and location.  This is the latest advance in technology that generates more and more insights into what makes us tick – the holy grail for market-hungry brand managers.

Whilst this might feel invasive and evoke images of a big brother society, there’s a flip-side to this abundance of information: the exponential growth of digital processing power seen over the last decade is also giving global citizens access to knowledge that in the past brands probably would have preferred remained buried in complex, global supply chains.

For instance, mobile phone apps such as Barcoo have pioneered bringing information about everyday products to European smartphone users through the simple scan of a barcode.

Going one step further is Carrotmob, a digital platform that allows individuals to come together in groups to spend money to support a business in return for them making an improvement that people care about.

Then there are businesses such as Honest By, who claim to be the world’s first 100 per cent transparent business.  Established by designer Bruno Pieter, the site sells fashion items where full details of sources, cost and even retail mark-up are freely available.

So, why is this move towards ultra-transparency good news for sustainability? Two key reasons. First - by giving civil society a voice, digital platforms are allowing debates about important social issues, which in turn are encouraging businesses to be more accountable as they realise the sheer impossibility of controlling their messages.  Last year, the sponsors of the 2012 Olympic Games wanted to tell the world how proud they were to support the Olympics.  Campaigning platform 38 Degrees wanted to tell the world how these blue chip companies were choosing to take a (legal) tax break.  Guess whose voice won?

Secondly, ultra-transparency is prompting business to scrutinise what really happens in their supply chain.  This can only be a good thing, if in the future it prevents bute-tainted horsemeat from being added to beef products heading for human consumption. The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), for example, brings together diverse global players like retail giant Walmart and many other household names to develop transparent methodologies and strategies for a new generation of products which address environmental, social and economic challenges. 

Of course, digitally-driven campaigns have their detractors.  There are those who believe it is nothing short of dangerous to use social media to create policy.  Avaaz.org is a digital campaigning community which attracted 2,419,077 signatories in just 36 hours supporting an EU-wide ban of neonicotinoid pesticides, linked to the dramatic fall in bee populations globally.  Enraged experts, including the United Kingdom’s National Farmers Union, warned of catastrophic crop losses without the pesticide.

This is, of course, the point about sustainability. It is complex and there often isn’t one "right" answer - a set of interventions are needed to truly solve a problem.

At Forum for the Future, we describe a sustainable business as one that is commercially successful and delivers goods and services that have a social value - all within environmental limits (or one planet’s worth of resources, not the current three in the UK, five in the US).  Whilst Lord Sugar’s OptimEyes might feel like a step closer to losing the personal data we hold dear, radical transparency is overall a positive driver towards this. 

By driving companies to assume responsibility for aspects of their supply chain which previously they may have been content to leave with suppliers at best - hidden at worst - we will see standards rise. And as the voice of the general public gets louder, businesses will be encouraged to deliver on their wider responsibilities to both society and the environment.