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Green GradesCan Information Save the Earth?$

Graham Bullock

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780262036429

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262036429.001.0001

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Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information

Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information

(p.143) 5 Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information
Green Grades

Graham Bullock

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 5 begins with a vignette about a corporate executive tasked with turning round her firm’s sustainability reputation. She must develop a holistic strategy for communicating the company’s environmental goals, progress, and achievements to its diverse stakeholders. It introduces and provides examples of the different forms, interfaces, and architectures by which corporations, government agencies, non-profit organizations and individuals can use to effectively deliver environmental information to their intended audiences. Possible delivery mechanisms include labels on products, ratings in a press release, data on a website, awards on a billboard, or slogans on a boycott sign. Concepts such as prominence, intelligibility, and feasibility are introduced and used to evaluate these different communication strategies. The chapter concludes with a further discussion of the noteworthy communication practices being used by existing information-based environmental governance initiatives.

Keywords:   Corporate, Usability, Website, Communication, Products, CSR, Outreach, Reputation

Decisions about Directions, Choices about Messages

Anu was recently hired as the chief marketing officer for a major consumer products company. One of the many items on the task list given to her by the firm’s CEO is to improve perceptions of the company’s corporate social responsibility, particularly in the area of climate change. In recent months, the company has received the lowest grade among its peers from the rating organization Climate Counts, and it has been labeled a “Climate Laggard” by nonprofit organizations Greenpeace and Ceres.1 The firm is increasingly getting hammered by negative comments on social media, and the CEO is beginning to worry that this negative spotlight may be having an effect on sales. In fact, a consumer survey commissioned by Anu’s predecessor revealed that consumer loyalty to several of the company’s most important brands has shown a marked decline over the past year.

Anu’s highly talented staff has no shortage of ideas to reverse this trend. Some want to double down on the successful green innovations the product development department has been rolling out, from bio-based packaging to nontoxic cleaners. Others are focused on getting their products certified by respected third-party organizations, arguing that claims of technical advances mean nothing to skeptical external audiences without such recognition. Still others are interested in highlighting the company-wide sustainability policies that the CEO has recently put in place. They are particularly proud of a sustainability award from Working Mother magazine, which named the firm as one of the Best Green Companies for America’s Children.

Meanwhile, a strong contingent of “cautious skeptics” are resistant to over-emphasizing the green message, and advise Anu to pay closest (p.144) attention to what most consumers want, which they assert is high-quality products at low prices. The concerns of these skeptics about consumer perceptions of eco-labeled products as confusing, overpriced, and not even that green overlap with those of the information pessimists discussed in earlier chapters. However, they are also based on a belief that many consumers and other stakeholders are still skeptical of climate change and the project of sustainability more generally. And then there are a few who Anu has deemed the “practical idealists” on her staff, who are less interested in advertising specific products or policies and more focused on communicating the company’s broader contributions to solving the many global environmental challenges facing society. To what extent has the company actually helped tackle these critical challenges?

Anu has had a successful career at several large corporations and knows when she sees a train wreck. She also realizes she needs to develop a clear strategy for her team to implement. Her sense is that the past approach has been ad hoc and opportunistic, with little thought to a broader vision of how sustainability really fits in with the company’s sales, marketing, and product development processes. The company has a corporate social responsibility report with a vision, objectives, and data, but it reads like a mashup of ideas rather than a thoughtfully developed strategy. And regardless, very few people actually read the report anyway. Her sense is that the company needs to both improve its sustainability performance and its communication of that performance. Her CEO is genuinely committed to doing so and wants the company not only to be seen as environmentally responsible but also to make a real difference. In light of this mandate, Anu knows she needs to find a better way to incentivize sustainability innovations within the company as well as communicate its accomplishments and aspirations to consumers and its other stakeholders, and she needs to do it soon. Anu’s overarching goal is therefore to deliver a new green vision to both the firm’s internal and external audiences strategically, holistically, and efficiently.

To sift through all the different options her staff is proposing, she divides them into three teams. One team will focus on developing strategies to effectively communicate sustainability information about the company’s products, another will focus on information about the company’s overall sustainability performance, and the third will focus on information about global challenges and the firm’s contributions to solving them. Anu (p.145) purposefully divides the cautious skeptics across the teams and asks them to get on board with the assignment, but encourages them to actively offer constructive criticism to their teams that is informed by their skepticism. Her staff is working on their assignments now, and Anu needs a framework to both evaluate their proposals and integrate them into a seamless communication strategy for the company. It would also be helpful to have some benchmarks of promising and problematic practices for communicating this type of information that can guide her in this process.

This chapter aims to provide such a framework and set of benchmarks for people like Anu. This framework is built around the concepts of determinance, importance, and salience, and is relevant not only to corporate leaders, but also to activists, policymakers, and other designers of sustainability information. The challenge that Anu faces is not unique to companies but common in these sectors as well. Nonprofit organizations and government agencies both need to effectively deliver their messages to their members and the broader public. They might do all the right things to build the value, trustworthiness, and quality of their information that were discussed in the previous three chapters, but if they fail to deliver that information effectively, all that work will have been a waste.

Understanding the Nature of Determinance

The theoretical framework presented in this chapter integrates concepts from a variety of disciplines and will help designers of information delivery systems avoid such a waste. As figure 5.1 shows, it begins with the concept of determinance, which refers to the extent to which a particular characteristic of an item actually drives—or “determines”—a decision about that item.2 Determinance is driven by two main factors—the (1) salience and (2) importance of the characteristics of the item in question (also shown in figure 5.1). These two factors capture the fact that an information delivery system must effectively take into account how the content and form of information influence each other. On the one hand, salience refers to whether a characteristic stands out or is “top of mind,” and is influenced by both the prominence and intelligibility of that characteristic—do people see it and do they understand what they see?3 Prominence refers to factors associated with usability, while intelligibility is determined by both the (p.146)

Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information

Figure 5.1 A framework for understanding the drivers of content relevance.

Note: This figure maps out some of the key relationships between these different concepts, and does not capture all of their possible interconnections. The chapter discusses each of these concepts in more detail and explores some of the most relevant linkages between them. These linkages may not always be in a linear direction but may involve complex feedback loops.

availability and accessibility of the characteristic as an existing concept in people’s minds.4

Importance, on the other hand, represents the significance or import of a characteristic, and is determined by two additional factors—the desirability of that characteristic (how attractive or meaningful it is) and the feasibility of actually acquiring it. Desirability is a more abstract concept that can be influenced by both emotional and rational processes, while feasibility is a more concrete idea that centers on the compatibility and applicability of the characteristic to the current context, including the capacity of the individual involved.5 The relationships between different concepts in this theoretical framework are mapped out in figure 5.1, and will be explained in more detail in the following sections.

While they may overlap, these are all distinct factors. Returning to Mark from chapter 2, he may be able to clearly see the USDA Organic label on the milk carton (it is prominent to him) and he may have heard of it before (it is available to him), but he may not be very familiar with it (it is not accessible to him). Thus the label is not very intelligible and therefore only has (p.147) limited salience for Mark. Nevertheless, upon figuring out what “organic” actually means, he may decide that it is indeed a desirable characteristic as he both cognitively and emotionally grasps its relevance to his values. But its higher price makes it less feasible to obtain, and therefore its overall importance remains limited to him. Thus while the presence of the organic label is an objective fact that may differentiate it from other products, many subjective factors that depend on the background and mental state of the individual consumer can influence its overall determinance in specific decision contexts.

Chapter 2 explores many of the factors that influence the desirability, or value, of ratings and certifications to different audiences, from their evaluation focus and coverage of public and private benefits to their evaluation scope and coverage of different sectors, countries, and levels of corporate activity. The chapter concludes that broad coverage of these different elements can enhance the perceived importance and desirability of information-based governance strategies. This chapter focuses instead on the three other factors that determine the uptake of these strategies—their prominence, intelligibility, and feasibility. These factors relate to important cognitive processes and are critical for information designers such as Anu to understand as they work to create sustainability information that will actually be useful to people like Mark.

Prominence: Can Audiences See It?

As figure 5.1 shows, the salience of information and the likelihood of it being noticed and remembered is determined by two key factors, the first of which is its prominence. Following this logic, Anu knows that her first challenge for her team is to get their intended audiences’ attention. These audiences need to notice whatever information that the team develops about the company and its products. No matter how great that information is, if people do not see it, it is useless to them. But beyond being seen, it is also helpful for that information to be viewed in a positive light—as superior and distinctive. The concept of prominence captures both of these factors, as it represents both a “state of being conspicuous” and a “quality of notoriety, eminence … and superiority.”6 A study of business school reputations led by Violina Rindova, a professor of business at the University of Texas at Austin, finds that these two dimensions of prominence can have different antecedents. The study concludes that while prominence as quality is predicted (p.148) by input metrics (e.g., student GMAT scores), prominence as conspicuousness is associated with certifications from institutional intermediaries (e.g., media rankings, peer-reviewed faculty publications) and affiliations with high-status actors (e.g., faculty members with prestigious degrees).7 But it also reports that organizations perceived as producing high-quality products are more likely to be prominent—as in conspicuous—in people’s minds. Those prominent organizations are in turn more likely to command a price premium due to their strong reputation.

The concept of usability can help us further understand the factors that determine the prominence of a particular organization or form of information, and how it can contribute to such price premiums. Usability is a widely used term in the information design and management field, and can make something both more conspicuous and eminent. The International Organization of Standards (ISO) provides a practical definition of “usability” as “the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”8 Usability has become an important focus in the design of websites and online experiences, and experts on the topic have articulated a wide range of principles to guide such design.9 While usability is also relevant to the other dimensions of determinance discussed later in the chapter, a few of these design principles are worth noting here as they can enhance both dimensions of prominence discussed previously.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen discusses the importance of “aesthetic and minimalist design” and suggests that sites “should not contain information that is irrelevant or rarely needed.”10 Steve Krug, another usability specialist, also points out that “people tend to spend very little time reading most Web pages” but instead “scan (or skim) them.”11 This insight is reinforced by research by Patrick Lynch and Sarah Horton, who have had leadership roles in information technology at Yale University and Dartmouth College, respectively. They focus on perceptibility, simplicity, and flexibility as universal design principles, and conclude that highly usable information is perceptible regardless of ambient conditions and sensory abilities, easy to use regardless of a user’s background, and flexible across a wide range of contexts.

Douglas Van Duyne (MarketShare), James Landay (Stanford Computer Science Department), and Jason Hong (Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science) also discuss the value of “organizing information in a (p.149) hierarchy of categories [that] can help customers find things,” even though creating such a hierarchy is challenging because different users think differently.12 While hierarchies can increase efficiency and flexibility of use, they often result in the structuring of websites into multiple layers of pages that become increasingly inaccessible to users from the homepage. One potential metric of a website’s usability therefore is the distance (e.g., number of clicks) that important information is from the homepage—in other words, how accessible that information is to the user and how well the hierarchy actually reflects the importance of that information. Another simple metric is the extent to which information is provided in PDF files, which Jakob Nielsen describes as “unfit for human consumption” in the online context because they often provide a jarring user experience, cause software problems, deliver an undifferentiated wall of content, and are generally hated by users.13

While the field of usability has yet to develop a standard set of design principles, the discussion in this section suggests that information interfaces that have high perceptibility, simplicity, and flexibility are more likely to be prominent and salient to a broad range of audiences. In designing her company’s new sustainability engagement strategy, Anu should ensure that the information it provides is quickly noticeable, easily accessible, and highly flexible. Regardless of their situation, people should be able to see and explore it without much difficulty or exertion. As we will discuss further, however, she will also need to manage important trade-offs between such simplicity and ease of use with other needs and desires of her audiences.

Intelligibility: Can Audiences Understand It?

The second dimension influencing an information interface’s salience is its intelligibility. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “intelligibility” as the “capability of being understood.”14 So once someone notices a message from Anu’s team about their company’s corporate sustainability, they have to be able to make sense of it. Research on cognition and framing has identified three primary determinants of this capability of being understood—availability, accessibility, and interactivity. First, the provided information must refer to concepts that are available in the viewer’s mind and memory.15 At the most basic level, it needs to be in a language the person can understand; next, it must use words in that language that they comprehend. (p.150) Then those words must refer to images, objects, or ideas that the viewer has a memory or conception of. Without such availability, the intelligibility and salience of the provided information are likely to be very low.

However, in the event that the person has no such conception available (e.g., they have never heard the term “corporate sustainability”), all is not lost. In this context, learnability is critical—any introduced concepts or objects need to be easily learned and incorporated into an individual’s lexicon and memory. Scholars in the fields of linguistics, cognitive psychology, education studies, and machine learning have studied learnability across a wide range of contexts and found that it can build on a variety of learning pathways.16 The machine learning literature, for example, distinguishes between rote learning, learning by being told, learning by analogy, learning from examples, and learning from observation.17 One approach developed and widely used in the field of education has identified four distinct learning styles—visual (through graphics or figures), aural/auditory (through hearing or speaking), textual (through reading and writing), and kinesthetic/tactile (through activity and movement).18

Information-based strategies can explain relevant concepts like sustainability, organic, or the product life cycle using any combination of these approaches. For example, they can provide examples and images of product life cycles, have a narrator compare these life cycles to the efficiency of biological systems, or ask audiences to identify ways to reduce waste after watching a video about a particular product life cycle. While it is unclear whether selectively presenting information visually, orally, textually, or through kinesthetic experiences is more helpful to different groups of learners,19 it has been shown that repeated exposure to information does indeed increase the accessibility of that information.20 Accessibility refers to whether a concept is accessible and retrievable from long-term memory at any given moment in time.21 Providing information in multiple formats—images, videos, text, or tangible objects—may activate different modes of learning and thereby increase such accessibility.

Heightening the memorability of the information can also increase information accessibility. Steve Krug suggests that memorable websites, for example, are likely to be more usable ones because people are less likely to have to relearn how to use them.22 Such memorability has two dimensions—the ability of something to stay in one’s mind and the ability to remember how to use something. Many strategies exist for making information stay (p.151) in one’s mind, from using bright colors to employing surprising language or images. A study by Scott Bateman and his colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan, for example, found that individuals shown charts embellished with elaborate and detailed imagery were more likely to remember the information two to three weeks after being exposed to it than those exposed to a simple, unadorned chart.23 This effect may in turn lead to an improved ability to access and make use of that information.

The third determinant of intelligibility is interactivity, which in our context can be understood as the degree to which the user and the information mutually influence each other.24 Studies of interactivity can be found in the education, computer science, and marketing literatures, and generally highlight the positive effects of interactivity on users’ online experience, learning, attitudes, emotions, and behavioral intentions.25 In one study, for example, students using web-based instruction systems with a high level of interactivity (e.g., discussion forms, chat room, instant messaging) had higher levels of satisfaction and perceived learning than those using systems with low levels of interactivity.26 Another study shows that consumers visiting a highly interactive version of a coffee brand’s website (e.g., with a recommendation option, online ordering, store locator, 3D product demo) are more likely to experience a sense of flow and total absorption, which in turn was associated with both stronger cognitive engagement and more positive emotional engagement with the brand and the website.27 A third study demonstrates that instructional videos provided in an interactive digital environment (with a synchronized online note-taking tool, supplemental resources, and practice questions) resulted in higher recall test scores than noninteractive videos.28 Thus strong evidence exists that interactive features increase the usability, learnability, memorability, and ultimately the intelligibility of the information provided.

Feasibility: Can Audiences Use It?

Anu realizes, however, that even if her team adds such features and is able to make its new and improved sustainability information both prominent and intelligible, it needs to be feasible for their customers and stakeholders to understand and make use of that information. Along with the desirability of the information, feasibility is a key determinant of the perceived importance of information-based initiatives, and refers to the degree to which particular actions can be easily completed.29 In Anu’s context, those actions (p.152) include consumers noticing, processing, and acting on information about her company’s sustainability practices. The literature on decision making has identified two factors that can increase the likelihood that an individual will make use of a particular piece of information. They include its applicability, which refers to how relevant the information is to the current context, and its compatibility, which refers to how compatible the information is with that context. A third factor is the cost of using the information, which not only includes any transaction costs associated with such use but also any price premiums associated with the products or companies recommended by the information. Transaction costs will be examined in more detail in this chapter, while price premiums are discussed further in chapter 2.

The concept of applicability has been most extensively used in research on framing and priming effects. Scholars have found that efforts to influence decisions by priming individuals with potentially biasing information beforehand are constrained by the applicability of that information to the particular decision at hand.30 Applicability thus reflects the degree of match between the features of the context and the features of the provided information.31 Research has shown that the accessibility of knowledge in a person’s memory is moderated by such applicability. In other words, the closer the match between the context and the provided information, the more likely individuals will remember and utilize their available knowledge about the decision in question.32 So for it to be feasible for Anu’s customers to utilize the sustainability information her team is developing, it needs to be applicable to their situation. Customers may see and understand the information, but if they do not make the connection between that information and their current purchasing decision, then it is unlikely to influence their behavior.

The second prerequisite for audiences to feasibly make use of information is its compatibility with the situation at hand. Even if consumers recognize the applicability of the information to a particular situation, it must be compatible with how they make decisions in that type of situation. As Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil at the Harvard Kennedy School explain, “people have settled routines and habits for making choices. Some carefully compare the price-per-pound labels for different brands; … others don’t bother. Some browse reviews of products and services … others shop on impulse. … [Information] can become embedded [in (p.153) their decision-making processes] only if it is compatible with these settled routines.”33 In particular, it is important that the information is provided at a time and place when and where people make decisions that are relevant to that information. The authors assert that Los Angeles restaurant hygiene grades and fuel economy ratings on new car stickers are particularly well designed in this regard—they are made available when and where “users are accustomed to making decisions.”34

Certainly, these programs are better designed than the counter-example that the authors discuss (technical government reports and dispersed public databases), but what if no other restaurants nearby have better grades? Or the car dealer only sells cars with poor fuel economy? In those contexts, the information may not be that useful. These scenarios highlight the importance of information flexibility to the feasibility of its use. Mentioned earlier as a key aspect of usability, information flexibility implies that information can be used and is useful across a wide range of contexts. In-window restaurant grades and on-car fuel economy ratings are examples of information being provided at the point of sale, which may be a useful place for many consumers.35 Indeed, as much as 70 percent of brand selections are made at stores.36 However, it may not always be the point of decision—the time and place where individuals make a decision to buy a particular product or engage in a particular activity.37 Some consumers may decide on a course of action not at the point of sale, but at the point of research—the time and place when and where individuals learn about and investigate different options relevant to their current needs and desires.

Information that is flexible would be available at as many potential points of decision as possible, including both points of sale and points of research. It would be available in stores, on windows, on shelves, and on products, as well as on company websites and comparison websites that are accessible on computers, tablets, and mobile phones. This flexibility makes it more feasible for individuals to integrate the information into their personal routines and contexts. Of course, these different information interfaces must be highly usable in these different contexts. This point reinforces the importance of several additional design principles from the usability literature. For example, Jakob Nielsen identifies a need for “flexibility and efficiency of use,”38 while usability consultant Bruce Tognazzini emphasizes the principles of “efficiency of the user” and “explorable interfaces.”39 Likewise, Steve Krug lists effectiveness (“does it get the job done?”) (p.154) and efficiency (“does it do it with a reasonable amount of time and effort?”) as important aspects of usability.40

To summarize, in order for audiences to feasibly make use of any particular form of information, it must not only be applicable to the decision at hand but also compatible with that decision. Such compatibility requires flexibility, efficiency, and effectiveness in the delivery of the information to those audiences. This point relates to Herbert Simon’s concept of “bounded rationality,” which posits that humans are only capable of rationally acting upon a limited amount of information.41 It also connects with work on the shortcuts that humans use to deal with information overload and reduce the transaction and search costs associated with that information.42 Humans have limited time, resources, and cognitive capacity, and therefore efforts to inform them about their decisions must be designed with these limitations in mind. In order to overcome these limitations, become integrated into these bounded cognitive processes, and become a shortcut itself, the information provided by these initiatives must be prominent enough to perceive, intelligible enough to understand, and feasible enough to utilize.

Interface Attributes

The framework described in the previous sections can help executives such as Anu by helping them focus on the prominence, intelligibility, and feasibility of the information interfaces they are developing. The framework organizes a disparate set of concepts, from accessibility to usability, into a structured approach to designing such interfaces. But to supplement this theoretical perspective, it would be helpful for Anu to know what the specific options are that she has at her disposal to increase the salience, importance, and determinance of the sustainability information her team is developing. Understanding the range of current practices among existing environmental certifications and ratings would also help Anu formulate her own information delivery strategy.

The sections that follow present data from my Environmental Evaluations of Products and Companies (EEPAC) Dataset that address these two needs of executives such as Anu. As explained in chapter 1, this dataset consists of the website text from 245 cases of information-based environmental governance initiatives, which were coded for a wide range of (p.155) characteristics and attributes. The data presented in this chapter focuses on three specific information attributes that represent particularly important interface decisions. These attributes include the form of the information provided, which range from the simple to the complex and from having a positive to a negative orientation. They include the pathways by which the information is provided, which include both physical and digital options. And they include the information’s architecture, specifically how it is organized when it is presented online. These attributes directly relate to three of the key concepts—simplicity, flexibility, and efficiency—presented in the framework earlier in this chapter, and allow us to further explore how they can be incorporated into information interfaces. The other concepts also discussed earlier, including perceptibility, memorability, and learnability, are explored further in a later section.

Forms of Information

The final component of the information value chain presented in chapter 1 is the interface by which the information is delivered to its audience. The core of this interface is the underlying form of the information that has been developed by the information value chain. There are eight basic forms of information that I have identified in the EEPAC Dataset—awards, ratings, databases, certifications, rated certifications, reviews, boycotts/watch lists, and rankings. Table 5.1 presents descriptions and examples of each of these forms of information.

These forms vary along several dimensions, each of which reveals important insights about the design of “simple” information interfaces. As discussed, simplicity is a key driver of information determinance, as it can make information more prominent, usable, and salient. However, simplicity is difficult to achieve, as information can be simplified in a variety of ways, and each involves important trade-offs. Such simplification can include the exclusion of positive, neutral, or negative information; it can also mean the reduction of information granularity, the combination of criteria, or the elimination of qualitative descriptions. All of these forms of simplification remove information that may be useful and desirable to at least some audiences.

A key distinction among these different forms of information is whether they provide positive, negative, or neutral information. Certifications and awards have a clear positive orientation, boycotts and watch lists are clearly (p.156)

Table 5.1 Forms of information in information-based strategies


Provides basic data on performance, with no attempt to rate, rank, award, or shame using that data (e.g., EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory).


Evaluates performance qualitatively, either in absolute or relative terms, with no direct comparative analysis that rates, ranks, or certifies relative performance (e.g., Green America’s Responsible Shopper).


Recognizes exemplary performance relative to a peer group, with no differentiation in different levels of performance (e.g., Innovest’s 100 Most Sustainable Companies).


Recognizes exemplary performance for meeting certain absolute standards, with no differentiation in levels of performance (e.g., ENERGY STAR).

Rated Certification

Recognizes exemplary performance meeting certain absolute standards, with more than one level of performance specified (e.g., gold, silver). Negative performance is not assessed (e.g., LEED certified).


Ordinally ranks companies or products in terms of their absolute or relative performance on one or more criteria (e.g., UMass Amherst’s Toxic 100 Ranking).


Rates using numbers, words, or letters the performance of a company or product based on either an absolute or relative scale that provides more than one level of performance recognition. Both negative and positive performance is assessed (e.g., Greenpeace’s Greener Electronics Guide).


Recognizes poor performance relative to a peer group, with no differentiation in different levels of performance (e.g., Ceres’ Climate Watch List).

Hybrid Systems

Some combination of the above types.

negatively oriented, and databases, ratings, rankings, and reviews can provide a mix of all three types of information. Awards, for example, highlight the strongest relative performers in a sample (the strategy behind Innovest’s 100 Most Sustainable Companies), while boycotts point out the weakest (the strategy behind UMass Amherst’s Toxic 100 Ranking). Archon Fung from the Harvard Kennedy School and Dara O’Rourke from UC Berkeley assert that the success of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) is due to the use of negative information and “blacklists” by advocacy groups that target the worst polluters because they are simple to understand and can mobilize diverse audiences.43

(p.157) A study led by Gunne Grankvist from Sweden’s University of Trollhättan/Uddevalla shows experimentally that consumers with “intermediate interest in environment issues” are indeed more responsive to negative eco-labels, while consumers with a strong interest in the environment are equally affected by both negative and positive information (and consumers with limited or no interest were unaffected by both kinds of information).44 Another study by Wageningen University marketing scholars Ynte Van Dam and Janneke De Jonge shows that negative eco-labels have a stronger effect on people who are oriented toward avoiding negative outcomes in their lives, while positive eco-labels have a stronger effect on people who are focused on achieving positive outcomes.45 Thus the exclusion of positive, negative, or neutral information represents an important simplification decision that may affect who engages with the information.

Another mechanism to simplify the information is to reduce its granularity. Certifications such as ENERGY STAR aim to recognize all performers who meet a certain absolute standard, and do not differentiate between those they certify. Ratings, rankings, and rated certifications such as LEED, Greenpeace’s Greener Electronics Guide, and Timberland’s Green Index seek to differentiate performance along a more granular spectrum. In this sense, ENERGY STAR provides binary information, while the others provide nonbinary scales of information. The binary certification may be simpler, more prominent, and more salient to consumers, but it leaves out information that some users may value.

These forms of information are not only different ways to deliver information but also reflect different emphases in the information development process. Databases, for example, focus on creating quantitative information, while reviews rely more on qualitative assessments. Likewise, both databases and reviews are generally more descriptive forms of information, in the sense of attempting to just “state the facts.”46 Awards, certifications, rankings, ratings, and boycotts are inherently more evaluative forms of information, as they are “closely connected with choice, decision, and action” and include prescriptive and normative meaning.47 Simplification efforts that eliminate the descriptive elements of the information and their focus on facts and attempt to boil everything down to a simple recommendation can increase the information’s salience. However, this may increase concerns about bias and reduce the perceived trustworthiness of the simplified information.

(p.158) Another simplification strategy is “bundling,” which combines similar information goods into one package.48 Multi-attribute programs—such as the Green Index, LEED, and Greenpeace’s Greener Electronics ratings—are examples of information bundling. They combine multiple criteria into a single index and set of results for users to focus on. By reducing the amount of information audiences have to interpret, such a strategy can reduce the transaction costs associated with using sustainability certifications and help overcome a sense of information overload.49 Again, however, such simplification has an important trade-off—it hides information that some users may feel is important and want to utilize in their decision-making process. By combining two or more of these forms of information, hybrid systems, such as the Greenwashing Index’s use of both ratings and reviews, are designed to avoid these trade-offs. They provide a blend of outputs that have both simplified information for the general audience as well as more granular data for those with particular interests.

The 245 cases in the EEPAC Dataset were coded for each of these information forms, and the data are presented in figure 5.2. Certifications are the most common (41 percent), followed by awards (30 percent) and ratings (23 percent). Least common are boycott/watch lists (6 percent) and rankings (4 percent). Two-thirds of the cases provide only one form of information, 20 percent provide two forms of information, and just over 12 percent provide three forms of information. The granularity and valence (whether they provide positive or negative information) of the cases were also coded. Just over half of the cases only provide positive forms of information (awards, certifications, and rated certifications), while very few (2 percent) provide only negative information (boycotts). The remainder provides a mix of both positive and negative information. Nearly half of the cases only provide simple binary information (awards, certifications, boycotts), while just under 30 percent only provide more complex nonbinary information (ratings, rankings, certifications, databases, reviews). The remaining cases provide both simple and complex information to their audiences.

These different forms of information can be further differentiated by the extent to which they analyze and simplify information as opposed to the extent to which they collect and compile it. Awards, boycott lists, ratings, rankings, and certifications tend to be more oriented toward information analysis and simplification, while databases and reviews are generally (p.159)

Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information

Figure 5.2 Form of information provided.

Note: Error bars indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for each sample proportion.

designed as important mechanisms of information collection, production, and dissemination. As figure 5.2 shows, most of the programs in the EEPAC Dataset serve as providers of information analysis, signaling, and shortcuts for their audiences, while a smaller number are sources of more extensive and less-processed sets of information (such as the Toxics Release Inventory).

Pathways of Information

Once Anu and her team have decided on the form or forms that their information will take, they must decide how they are going to actually deliver that information to their key audiences. This design choice revolves around selecting the appropriate pathways for their information to flow through, and the most relevant principles to this choice that we have discussed are flexibility, simplicity, and efficiency. As figure 5.3 illustrates, such pathways can be either physical or electronic. Physical pathways include on-product labels, paper newsletters, wallet guides, books, and magazines, while electronic pathways encompass company websites, social media outlets, phone and tablet apps, shopping sites, and email newsletters. This distinction is important for several reasons—first, different audiences may be more familiar and comfortable with particular pathways. For example, older, (p.160)

Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information

Figure 5.3 Electronic and print pathways of information.

Note: Cases were coded for a variety of specific website pathways, including individual pages for rated items, search engines, pulldown menus, lists of all rated items, PDF reports, and online shopping options. Cases were also coded for two specific mobile app pathways (iOS and Android apps) and four specific social network pathways (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram). Arrows only indicate primary flows of information—additional pathways are possible but not shown in this figure.

less educated, and lower-income audiences generally are less likely to be exposed to electronics pathways. According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, over 40 percent of adults 65 years old or older and adults without a high school diploma do not use the Internet (compared to 2 percent of 18–29-year-olds and 3 percent of college-educated adults), while one out of four adults who make less than $30,000 per year do not surf the web (compared to 3 percent of those who make over 75,000 per year).50 Thus information provided via electronics pathway is less likely to reach these groups.

(p.161) In order to investigate how existing information-based environmental governance initiatives are delivering their information, my research assistant and I coded the websites of the 245 cases in the EEPAC Dataset for these different electronic and physical information pathways. Given the speed at which information technologies have been changing in recent years, we manually recoded all 245 cases in January–March 2016 for these pathways (for more on the coding process, see appendix I). Interestingly, the websites of forty-seven of the initiatives included in the original dataset are now defunct, suggesting that these initiatives are currently nonoperational. This is an important insight to which we will return in chapter 7. For now, the data presented in figure 5.4 and discussed as follows are from the 198 cases that still maintain functional websites.

As a requirement for being included in this dataset, all of these cases use at least one electronic pathway, a functioning website. Just over 40 percent use at least one physical pathway to deliver its information, and over 85 percent of these pathways are on-product labels, such as USDA Organic or ENERGY STAR. The primary exception is paper pathways. Corporate Knights and CR, for example, produce magazines in which their corporate sustainability rankings are published. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium provides a wallet guide called “Seafood Watch” that evaluates the sustainability of different fisheries, while the Better World Shopper’s ratings comes in the form of a book (as well as a website). Another exception is labels that are provided by a retailer in-store but may not be physically on products. An example of this relatively rare pathway is Home Depot’s Eco-Options label.

While all of the cases have websites, the electronic pathways by which they deliver their information online vary significantly. Just over half of the initiatives provide lists of their product or company evaluations on a single page, or on a series of pages when the volume of ratings is high. Such lists make these program’s basic information relatively accessible and easy to find. Just under half provide evaluation information about individual companies or products on a separate page or pop-up screen, enabling them to provide more details about their certification or rating without overloading a single page. Nearly one in three cases provide both comprehensive lists and individual pages.

One in six cases provide their information in downloadable PDF files, but usually this information is supplemental to information provided in (p.162)

Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information

Figure 5.4 Pathways of information (by percent of cases).

Note: Error bars represent the standard errors for each sample proportion.

html format. Two of the few exceptions include Greenpeace’s Chemical Home Report and CR’s 100 Best Corporate Citizens rankings, which are only published as PDFs. Just over half of the cases provide the ability to search directly through their ratings and certifications; another 30 percent provide general search functionality of their website, while 20 percent provide no ability to search their sites at all. Search engines enable users to find specific products or companies that they are interested in more quickly. (p.163) Nearly half enable users to browse the ratings with product category links, while one in eight sites have pull-down menus that provide quicker access to their rating and certification results.

Each of these functionalities are designed to make the information on these sites more accessible. But first they have to get audiences to visit the site in the first place. Otherwise, even the most user-friendly site is worthless. An increasingly common way to increase the salience and prominence of these websites is through social media sites, which have grown dramatically in popularity in recent years. For example, a 2015 survey found that over 62 percent of American adults use Facebook, the most popular such site, while 24 percent use Instagram, 22 percent use LinkedIn, and 20 percent use Twitter.51 Slightly more women use Facebook and Instagram, and slightly more men use Twitter.52 High school and college graduates use Facebook in equal proportions, 18–29-year-olds are the most common users of Instagram and Twitter, and LinkedIn is particularly popular among the college educated and the employed.53 As of March 2016, these four sites are among the most widely used social networking sites in the United States.54

These social media sites therefore provide a range of pathways for information-based governance initiatives to reach a diverse set of audiences. We coded their websites for whether they have links to their own pages on these social media sites (and not just links to share a page through them), and found that two-thirds of them had such a link to either Facebook or Twitter pages (or both). Just under 25 percent have a link to LinkedIn, and just over 18 percent have a link to Instagram. Approximately one-third have no links to any social media pages, while only 5 percent have links to all four sites. Another electronic pathway that these initiatives can utilize is email newsletters, which users can sign up for on their websites and forward on to friends and family. Just over half of the cases give visitors to their websites the opportunity to sign up for such newsletters or action alerts, which may be directly related to the case itself or more generally about the organization implementing the case.

Users can also access information from these initiatives through mobile phone and tablet apps. A 2015 study found that nearly two-thirds of Americans own smartphones (phones that can access the Internet), and 25 percent report they have limited online access beyond their phone (10 percent have no other access at home).55 Younger, less well-off, less-educated, (p.164) and nonwhite American adults are disproportionately dependent on their phones for Internet access.56 The two dominant platforms for these devices are iOS (for Apple products) and Android (for products made by Samsung, LG, and other manufacturers). According to 2015 data from Kantar Worldwide, Android smartphones make up 59 percent of the market while iPhones make up 40 percent. iPhones in the United States are more popular among women, adults with a graduate degree and incomes over $125,000,57 and iPhone users are more likely to visit e-commerce sites from their phones.58 Despite the growing importance of cell phones for Internet access, only seven cases in the EEPAC Dataset have apps designed for either iOS or Android. Seafood Watch and B Corporation, for example, have apps for both platforms, while GoodGuide and Climate Counts only have iOS apps available.

These initiatives might also add the ability to purchase rated or certified products via their websites. Such functionality would represent an additional pathway of information for users to follow. It would also increase the applicability of the information and the feasibility of actually using it at their points of research, decision, and sale. My analysis found that 51 percent of the cases provide such shopping functionality, either directly on their site or as a direct link to purchase specific products on external sites.

Architectures of Information

The third major set of user experience choices Anu and her team have to make relate to the structure—or architecture—of the information delivery system itself. If that system is an eco-label on a product, how will that eco-label be designed? What will it look like? If that system is a database, how will users access the information through it? What fields will they be able to search? Given that the EEPAC Dataset focuses on websites, in this section I focus on the architecture of those websites. How are they structured, and how easy is it for people to find relevant information on them? Specifically, how many clicks (and how much time and effort) does it take for them to find important information about these programs on their websites?

The average number of pages on these websites is 9.4, with 38 percent having ten or more pages, 42 percent having between five and nine pages, and 20 percent having fewer than five pages. Less than 2 percent have only one primary page and approximately 25 percent have only primary and (p.165) secondary pages (i.e., pages that are one click away from the homepage). The remaining 73 percent on average have five tertiary pages (i.e., pages more than one click away from the homepage); the highest number of tertiary pages per case in the dataset is fifty-six (Rainforest Alliance). As figure 5.5 highlights, approximately one-fifth of all the codes were found on the primary homepages of the sites, half on secondary pages, and one-third on tertiary pages (pages two or more clicks away from the homepage). Approximately 20 percent of the cases have a majority of their codes on their homepages, 47 percent have a majority of their codes on their secondary pages, and 20 percent have a majority of their codes on tertiary pages (codes were more evenly spread across the page levels in 15 percent of the cases). Over 40 percent provide information in at least one PDF file on their website, which is higher than the statistic noted previously because this includes all PDFs, not only those that include product or company evaluation data.

The Landscape of Information Delivery

As in previous chapters, I have created a snapshot of the landscape of information delivery systems being used by the cases in the EEPAC Dataset.

Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information

Figure 5.5 Coded information location in website structure (by percent of codes).

Note: Figure shows the proportion of coded text segments that were found on the primary webpage, secondary webpages (pages one click from the primary webpage), and tertiary webpages (pages more than one click away from the primary webpage). Error bars indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for each sample proportion.

(p.166) Figure 5.6 presents this landscape, which combines and simplifies a subset of the data presented earlier. The diagonal axis aggregates the data on the different forms of information previously discussed, dividing the cases into seven different types. The top three rows, where 60 percent of the cases are congregated, include initiatives that only provide positive information (awards, certifications, or rated certifications). These cases are further categorized by the complexity of their information—the cases in the first row only provide simple binary forms of information (awards like the Ceres-ACCA Sustainability Reporting Awards and certifications like USDA Organic), and the cases in the second row only provide more complex non-binary information (rated certifications like EPEAT). The cases in the third row provide both binary and nonbinary information, such as the Corporate Responsibility Index, which recognize the top 100 companies it rates as “Companies That Count” (a form of a binary award) while also rating them in four bands—platinum, gold, silver, and bronze.

Figure 5.6 highlights the dearth of cases that only provide negative information—no cases only provide complex negative information, and only two (CERES’s Climate Watch and ECRA’s list of Current Consumer Boycotts) provide simple negative information. The rest of the cases (nearly 40 percent) are concentrated in the final three rows, which provide both positive and negative information. Cases in the fifth row provide simple forms of this information (awards, boycotts, or certifications), while cases in the sixth row provide this mix of information in more complex forms (ratings, rankings, databases, reviews, and rated certifications). Cases in the bottom row provide positive and negative information in both simple and complex forms. The Carbon Disclosure Project, for example, publishes a Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index, which recognizes the top performers in different sectors, as well as disclosure scores for all participating companies and a full database of their disclosed information, which lists both disclosure leaders and laggards.

The horizontal axis further categorizes the cases by some of the pathways of the information they utilize. Cases in the columns to the far left (20 percent of the total) do not provide any information directly on products or via the four social media sites discussed (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram). The second column from the left includes cases that have social media sites but no information on products (45 percent of the total), while the third column from the left includes cases that provide information on (p.167)

Delivering Green: The Communication of the Information

Figure 5.6 The landscape of information delivery systems. Note: The ten cases in the back left-hand corner use no social media or product pathways and only provide simple positive information. The two cases in the front right-hand corner utilize both social media and product pathways and provide both simple and complex forms of positive and negative information.

(p.168) products but no social media sites (10 percent of the total). The remaining 24 percent of the cases in the fourth column from the left have both information on products and social media sites. Only two cases use both social media and product pathways and provide a mix of both simple and complex positive and negative information.

The Information Realist Perspective

Information pessimists would likely point to the landscape of information delivery systems outlined in this chapter as further evidence of the depravity of information-based governance strategies. First of all, the range of different forms of information shown in figure 5.2 highlights how confusing and challenging this landscape is to navigate. What is the difference between a rating and ranking again? Between a certification and rated certification? How are ordinary consumers, and even knowledgeable experts, supposed to compare and evaluate such a range of information forms? In the view of these skeptics, such comparisons are impossible to make because these different forms of information are incommensurable, and no amount of analysis will change that.

The almost complete absence of cases that solely provide negative information about products or companies makes this form of governance even more problematic. Furthermore, the fact that more than 50 percent of the cases only provide positive information reveals these initiatives’ complicity with corporations and unwillingness to directly confront them about their environmental and social transgressions. Beyond this lack of courage to speak truth to power, the range of information complexity discussed in this chapter highlights an even deeper and more fundamental limitation of these strategies. As legal scholars Omri Ben-Shahar (from the University of Chicago) and Carl Schneider (from Yale University) assert in their book, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure, disclosure strategies face an unresolvable dilemma—complex information is too overwhelming and ultimately counter-productive for users, while simplified information is too limited and ultimately misleading for users. Providing both simplified and complex information represents not a happy medium but even more information for users to sift through. Given the time and knowledge constraints of the vast majority of people who might use information disclosed through these strategies, they are at best a fool’s (p.169) errand and at worst actively harmful to society, as they waste time, distract from more effective strategies, and lead to complacency and a false sense of progress.

The pathways and structural data raise further concerns for information pessimists. The general scarcity of paper pathways makes many of these programs inaccessible to people without access to the Internet, and the provision of their data in PDF files undermines the prominence and intelligibility of their product and corporate evaluations, even for those with online access. The broad lack of well-designed search engines, rating lists, browsing abilities, and pulldown menus further reduces the flexibility and ease of use of the cases. This is particularly concerning given the amount of important information these initiatives provide about themselves that is not available on the homepages or even secondary pages of these websites. The number of clicks necessary to reach much of this information reduces its salience and prominence, and raises concerns that the website designers may be strategically hiding some information deep within their site hierarchies.

Furthermore, the fact that nearly half of the cases do not have a clear social media presence, two-thirds do not provide any information directly on product labels, and nearly 85 percent do not provide shopping functionality on their sites (and one in seven do none of the above) demonstrates the limited feasibility for consumers and other stakeholders to actually make use of the information in their purchasing decisions. The lack of detailed pages about individual rated companies or products on more than half of the cases also likely reduces the learnability and memorability of the information, not to mention its credibility and replicability. Providing details about individual products allows for more interaction with the data, and can provide context for the rating or certification provided, making it more cognitively and emotionally accessible in the future.

And so on the one hand the pessimists see nothing to assuage their pessimism. Information optimists, on the other hand, would likely see this landscape not as confusing, but as exciting, and as evidence of the innovativeness and dynamism of information-based governance. From social media to email newsletters, these initiatives are trying out new ways to engage their audiences and make their information salient to them. How many government regulatory programs have mobile apps? The lack of homogeneity in this landscape reflects the efforts of designers to use tools (p.170) that help them reach specific audiences. To the extent there is homogeneity, such as the lack of purely negative information, that more likely reflects a belief that positive information is a more effective approach to engage their audiences than evidence of corporate complicity or a lack of courage. And in any case, 40 percent of the cases provide both positive and negative information in the form of ratings, rankings, databases, and reviews.

Regarding the “unresolvable dilemma” mentioned earlier, optimists would likely disagree in several ways. The first would be to contest the notion that this dilemma is unresolvable—just because it has not been resolved yet does not mean that it cannot be. The second would be to contend that some initiatives have done a relatively good job of balancing the competing needs for simplicity and complexity. And the third would be to point out that the dilemma may be more resolvable for certain audiences and in certain contexts, and a blanket fatalism is unsupported, inappropriate, and unhelpful.

Optimists would also likely be more positive about the pathways and structural data presented. First of all, given the challenges of getting information on products, setting up online shopping opportunities, and producing print publications, the fact that over 80 percent of the cases engage their audiences through at least one of these pathways is quite impressive. Second, as discussed earlier, not all purchasing decisions are made at the point of sale—many are made at the point of research, and so sites that provide information that consumers use to research products and companies can still be influential.

Third, not all pathways are used by all audiences, and following the logic of chapter 3, initiatives may be strategically emphasizing certain pathways and certain information to reach certain audiences. For example, designers focused on reaching younger audiences may prioritize having a Twitter and Instagram presence, and see less need for a LinkedIn site. Similarly, initiatives may be delivering their information in more extensive PDF reports because they are trying to influence policymakers and executives, who may value the more detailed, contained and finished product that a PDF document allows for. Some consumers may also find PDF files easier to review and navigate than a sprawling website. Indeed, given that a huge amount of information is necessary to establish the relevance, validity, and trustworthiness of these programs, it is natural for them to organize and prioritize that information in some kind of digital hierarchy, which (p.171) might include at least a few PDF files. For the most credible and rigorous programs to include all of its information on its homepage would be truly overwhelming. Indeed, only the most vacuous programs could include all of their information on a single page.

And finally, while on-product certifications are great, manufacturers are not always amenable to them. It is therefore important to have alternative information pathways available, such as online comparison websites, and not dismiss them as “inaccessible.” Pessimists cannot have it both ways—if they want independent information that has no conflicts of interest, they have to be open to information that is not directly available on products.

In light of these opposing arguments, the information realist must articulate a clear perspective on the quality of existing information delivery systems that provide sustainability information about products and companies. She will first acknowledge the limitations of both the usability theories and data described in this book and elsewhere to evaluate these delivery systems. The reality of user experiences is much too complex for any single theory or dataset to fully capture the quality of those experiences. Therefore, some humility is necessary on both sides of the debate, particularly given the nascent and rapidly changing nature of relevant technologies. Nevertheless, the information realist can use some of the concepts and data presented in this chapter as starting points for a discussion on how to approach the design of environmental information delivery systems (and information delivery systems more generally).

Regarding the first debate over the commensurability of the diverse forms of information provided by the EEPAC cases, it is true that awards and certifications are inherently incommensurable. While greater methodological transparency can increase the comparability of their results, at heart they are intrinsically different given that an award is a relative evaluation (only a few programs can receive the award regardless of their level of performance) while a certification is an absolute one (any program attaining a certain level of performance can earn it). However, commensurability is not the only attribute we value and it is only relevant when we have to choose between two different forms of information. We are also interested in the effectiveness of these initiatives in their own right, as well as how they might complement rather than compete with other forms of information. We will return to these questions in chapter 6, but for now we will (p.172) focus on thinking about these different forms of information as components of stand-alone delivery systems.

The question of the unresolvable dilemma raised by Ben-Shahar Schneider is an important one, as a trade-off between simplicity and complexity does exist. However, the pessimist’s view is too defeatist—if we were to adopt this attitude more generally, we would give up on every effort to educate and inform the public, and perhaps on democracy itself. If it is hopeless to get the balance of information right, why fund public schools, or even attempt to educate our own children? Why entrust any decisions to the public, including voting for their representatives, that depend on them being informed about particular issues? However, the pessimists are correct to say that many, if not most, of these initiatives, fail to find the optimal “not too much, not too little” amount of information. Whether it is worth continuing the pursuit of this optimum depends on the likelihood that alternative modes of governance will have greater chances of success, which is another topic that we will return to in chapters 6 and 7.

The debate about the value of stand-alone negative information can be informed by psychological research on the effects of fear-based appeals. One insight from this research is that such appeals can be effective, but only if they also show how to avoid the threat and audiences believe they can indeed do so (i.e., they have high self-efficacy and response efficacy).59 In other words, fear works as a motivator only if people are provided with mechanisms to escape that fear. Such research can explain the value of hybrid approaches that combine both positive and negative information. Boycotts and poor ratings can make an issue salient and important for an audience, while awards, certifications, and excellent ratings can point them toward alternative companies and products that perform better than the worst offenders. If implemented effectively, such a strategy can increase both the prominence of an information-based initiative as well as the feasibility of utilizing the information it provides. Thus the optimists may be right that such hybrid approaches may be based on a well-informed strategy. However, it must be implemented well, with a clear connection drawn between the negative and positive information. This connection is rarely made, by either the hybrid initiatives or the initiatives that only provide positive information.

Different audiences may also prefer certain types of information more than others, which relates to the multitude of pathways documented in the (p.173) results discussed here. The information realist’s perspective on these pathways is that some may in fact be more attractive to particular audiences, and it makes sense for programs to tailor their information delivery systems to the audiences they are focused on, both aesthetically and functionally. However, once they have made their information salient and feasible for their primary audience, it also makes sense to make your information accessible to as many other audiences as possible. Indeed, many of the website features described previously, from search engines to category hyperlinks, have become relatively standard, and can be helpful to a broad range of users.

Nevertheless, it is still important to have a realistic and intentional strategy, particularly given the fast-changing nature of the technology landscape. For example, mobile apps were deemed a requirement for engaging cell phone users in 2014,60 but in 2016 commentators called for a greater focus on having mobile-friendly websites.61 Others are suggesting that both mobile browsers and apps are important components of a comprehensive mobile engagement strategy—the former to reach a broad audience of light users and the latter to retain a more narrow audience of heavy (and loyal) users.62 This example highlights the still-early and evolving state of modern web-based information technologies, and the ubiquitous presence of new innovations and pathways to reach users. Designers should be bold but focused in this age of experimentation—try one thing or try many things, but move on to other options quickly if initial pursuits are not working out.

Regarding the data on the architecture of the cases’ websites, it is certainly necessary to prioritize the information and structure that information into an intuitive hierarchy of webpages. But mechanisms exist that can make this hierarchy flexible, prominent, and accessible to users. Site maps in the footer or sidebar and pulldown menus in the header of the homepage can reveal the structure of the entire website, and enable users to reach any page within it, or at least any section, with one click. Tabs can enable more content to be embedded on the homepage, while reducing the need to click on to any secondary pages (and eliminating the page-loading time associated with such clicks). A standard of having most if not all key facts relating to the content, methods, trustworthiness, and effectiveness of these initiatives within one click of their homepages is a realistic and sensible one that they should all be aspiring toward.

(p.174) Promising and Problematic Practices

In light of these debates, what is Anu to do? Should she join the pessimists and give up on her entire enterprise? Or should she proceed with the unbridled enthusiasm of the information optimists? What would a third path of information realism look like for her? Her three teams are coming back soon—what have we learned in this chapter that can help inform her next decisions?

As a general rule to guide her work as an information realist, Anu should add attributes to her information delivery system that have high determinance and are likely to increase the likelihood that her audiences will actually use the information she is providing to them. Such characteristics should make her information more prominent, intelligible, and feasible to use. Prominent attributes will increase the conspicuousness, perceptibility, and usability of the information. Intelligible characteristics will make the information more available, learnable, accessible, memorable, and interactive. And attributes that increase the information’s feasibility will make it flexible, efficient to use, and applicable to and compatible across a range of decision contexts.

The cases in the EEPAC Dataset provide valuable exemplars of these attributes. Blue Ocean’s partnership with Whole Foods, for example, enables the grocery store chain to place informative labels on seafood in all of its stores, making information about fishery sustainability prominent, conspicuous, and compatible with consumer’s regular shopping routines.63 The Wildlife Habitat Council’s Corporate Lands for Learning Program enables companies to place large signs on their certified properties that highlight their certification status and inform visitors about the company’s conservation efforts at these sites. While on-product labels can also increase the prominence of these programs’ information, the less-common print publications, such as Gardens Alive’s catalog and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s wallet cards, can also increase the conspicuousness and usability of this information, particularly for consumers who do not often use online information sources. Catalogues provide a fast way to quickly learn about and compare a wide range of products, while wallet cards provide quick shortcuts to the best and worst choices when consumers are in stores or at restaurants.

The relative usability and intelligibility of these initiatives is difficult to precisely measure, but several online services are available that provide (p.175) systematic assessments of websites. For example, WooRank, PowerMapper, and Google Webmaster Tools provide a wealth of both free and fee-based website tests and statistics that can be used to improve the usability and navigability of sites. Pingdom.com assesses the speed and performance of websites and their individual pages and recommends ways to improve sites free of charge. WebpageFX and Juicy Studio provide free online evaluations of the intelligibility of websites that include detailed text statistics and readability indices.64 High scores on these indices suggests that designers should consider simplifying the language, words, and sentences used on their sites, particularly if they are trying to reach a broad audience.

Several cases effectively use video and graphics that increase the accessibility and learnability of the information they are providing. For example, Rainforest Alliance and the Environment Protection Agency’s Safer Choices Program have engaging videos embedded directly on the front page of their sites that explain the value and purpose of their certification programs, providing specific examples and statistics. The EPA video features EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy with her dog as she introduces the Safer Choice Program to viewers, while the Rainforest Alliance program uses an engaging cartoon-drawing video that tells viewers more about its certified products and increases their salience and memorability. It also provides an interactive map that shows all of the farms that it works with around the world, with information about their acreage and crops grown. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and B Corporation websites have links to YouTube playlists of videos about their certifications that include inspirational program overviews, engaging interviews and presentations by thought leaders endorsing the program, and focused testimonials from specific companies and fisheries that have been certified. The MSC also has a companion site, Fish and Kids, that teaches children about the importance of marine sustainability through a variety of interactive games, films, activities, and “fishy fact files.”

All of these mechanisms can increase the salience and intelligibility of these initiatives. They enable stakeholders to learn what environmental certifications do and why they are important, and help them remember to look for their labels when they are shopping. As discussed earlier, other programs make this process even easier by providing links directly to certified products that they can buy online. Blue Dolphin, for example, labels itself as the “first and only ALL-green general store” and enables visitors (p.176) to its site to find and buy certified products that it has identified directly on its site. GoodGuide provides direct links to Amazon.com for products it has rated on its website and mobile app. It also experimented with a “Transparency Toolbar” (embedded as a Firefox or Chrome add-on) that would appear at the bottom of the browser whenever users searched for a product on Amazon. This toolbar would show social, environmental, and health ratings of the product searched for as well as higher-scoring alternatives.65 Knowmore.org developed a similar Firefox add-on that provided sustainability ratings of companies in Google search results and as a toolbar alert when users visited company websites.66 CSRHub created a widget that can be embedded into any website and enables users to quickly look up CSRHub’s corporate sustainability ratings directly from that website.67 These innovations have either been discontinued or not recently updated, but similar efforts to increase the prominence and applicability of sustainability information and layer it into the online browsing experience could build on these experiments.

These are just a few of the innovative practices that initiatives have employed to make their information more accessible and usable for its audiences. A few examples of characteristics that likely decrease the usability of this information are worth mentioning as well. The most obvious among them is the erection of paywalls that limit the information to paying customers. Eight of the cases in the EEPAC Dataset have such paywalls, and they clearly reduce the usability of the information for those who cannot or will not pay for access to it. Of course, such payments can have clear benefits by increasing the financial sustainability of the initiative and perhaps its trustworthiness as well. Initiatives with paywalls are often more oriented toward corporate audiences with greater resources, and their payments can enable the initiative to increase the usability of the data for those who do pay for access to it. From the perspective of most stakeholders, however, this practice essentially assures that the information will not be used by the vast majority of the public, and so this trade-off should be carefully considered. Consumer-oriented initiatives that have paywalls, such as Consumer Reports, must invest in building their brand, ensuring their credibility, and persuading the public that their information is worth paying for.

A related practice by sites such as Ethical Consumer and the Princeton Review requires email signups or user sign-ins before being able to view the (p.177) information (or more detailed information), which can turn away a huge number of potential visitors—without the benefit of payments. Likewise, splash pages (such as those used on the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep website) that pop up requesting email addresses or newsletter signups before entering the main website can be a deterrent and frustration for users as well. Organizations should resist these and other practices that create friction for their users unless they are absolutely necessary.

The Delivery of Corporate Sustainability Information

Anu is now listening to her team’s presentations, as they explain their ideas for improving perceptions of their company’s sustainability performance. They have some great proposals, such as committing to third-party product and company certifications, moving away from unverified green claims, and tracking their contributions to solving three key environmental challenges—global water shortages, product toxicity, and climate change. From the life cycle analyses they conducted on a sample of their own products, they identified these challenges as the ones most relevant to the company’s supply chains and the ones they could make the most impact on.

More specifically, each team proposes ambitious goals over both the short and long term, and recommend specific certifications to pursue. They recommend that these goals be adopted and integrated across the company’s management, finance, marketing, and product development divisions to create a broader corporate culture around them. As a step in this direction, the team focusing on corporate sustainability would like to become the first Fortune 500 company to be certified as a B Corporation, which encourages such integration by recognizing companies that meet the “meet the highest standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.”68

Also along these lines, the team focusing on product sustainability wants to have all of their products certified to the multi-attribute Cradle to Cradle Platinum standard, which sets minimum requirements for the safety of the materials used in the products, the safe reutilization of those materials, the use of renewable energy during the manufacturing process, and the cleanliness of the water used during that process.69 Furthermore, they want the packaging of all of their products to be certified by the U.S. Department (p.178) of Agriculture’s BioPreferred Program, which sets standards for products derived from plants and other renewable materials—and not from petroleum.70 Likewise, they want all of the palm oil they use in their products to be certified by the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil.71

The team focusing on global impacts suggests partnering with nongovernment organizations to track progress and implement programs related to the sustainable use of energy, water, and chemicals, both within and beyond the company’s own operations. They have drafted five- and ten-year objectives for the company to achieve in each of these three areas. They have incorporated goals into their proposal that, if achieved, should ensure that the company scores well on corporate sustainability ratings such as Climate Counts and is removed from boycott lists such as Greenpeace’s “Climate Laggards.”

Anu is impressed by both the visionary and grounded nature of her teams’ work. She sees how her staff has responded to the poor evaluations of several information-based environmental governance initiatives by thoughtfully incorporating the certifications from several other initiatives into their own homegrown and hybridized information-based governance strategies. Getting the cautious skeptics and practical idealists to work side by side seems to have paid off, as the ambitious goals are coupled with clear connections to the company’s customers. The skeptics pushed each team to articulate the relevance of each recommendation to people who buy their products, and they did so—often using the language of trustworthiness, validity, and values, concepts discussed at length in earlier chapters. Nevertheless, and perhaps not surprisingly, Anu senses a lack of integration and linkages both among the teams’ work and between their work and the company’s diverse stakeholders.

Fortunately, Anu has been busy working on forging this broader integration as the teams have been developing their specific strategies. At the heart of this strategy is a new holistic website that is fully immersive and interactive. The site has two modes—one designed to be deeply engaging and the other to be extremely accessible. For the first mode, she has hired a renowned game designer to make the site into an online gaming experience, simulating classic roleplaying games like World of Warcraft or the Sims. It starts with an engaging video trailer explaining the company’s sustainability strategy and the online game, which enables users to dynamically explore and learn about the company’s supply chains. Users choose a (p.179) character (male or female, adult or teenager) who begins in a simulated grocery store, where they can choose to learn about a variety of the company’s products. Once a user chooses a particular product, their character is able to fully investigate its supply chain, working their way from the grocery aisle back to the delivery and manufacturing processes, and then all the way to the farms and forests where the product’s ingredients come from. Along the way, the character can earn points and coupons by meeting real workers in the supply chain and learning about both the real-life challenges and opportunities facing the company’s efforts to become more sustainable.

While the first mode is focused on making the company’s efforts more salient, learnable, and memorable, the second mode is focused on information accessibility and usability. It provides easy-to-use pulldown menus of product categories, an interactive search engine, a comprehensive site map, and highly readable text that puts all the information about the company’s sustainability efforts at the user’s fingertips. It is structured in a relatively flat and easy-to-navigate hierarchy, with each page uncluttered and simple to use. Importantly, it is designed to be mobile-friendly so users can access it easily in stores. This is critical because Anu envisions customers scanning the barcodes of their products and instantly accessing sustainability information about them. This information is organized in a nested fashion, from quick summaries on the first page to detailed statistics on other pages for those who want to dive deeper. This way, customers who have never heard of the Cradle to Cradle label, for example, can quickly learn more about it.

Through this nested and dual-mode approach, Anu hopes to solve the “unresolvable dilemma” discussed earlier. By providing two tracks, she can create a fully immersive and engaging experience for stakeholders who want to really understand her company’s strategy, while also providing a more efficient and flexible information delivery system for those who just need straightforward information to decide among different products. She is realistic about how many people will choose the immersive option, but also recognizes the value of providing that option for those who are willing to take the time to engage with it. Without such engagement, they are likely to remain cynical about and critical of her company’s sustainability efforts; with it, they may become less cynical, and even positive, about those efforts. It may even lead them to become advocates for the company’s efforts and share what they have learned throughout their social (p.180) networks. Anu is also hopeful the game-like atmosphere of the site will be particularly engaging for Millennials, who have grown up with such online experiences.

At the end of the day, however, Anu also knows that the quality of her company’s sustainability efforts—and the hard work of her staff—will not be measured by how interactive or intelligible its website is, or even how well designed their full information delivery system is. This system may make her company’s sustainability information prominent, usable, and compatible for a range of different stakeholders, and that information may be as salient, trustworthy, and methodologically valid as possible. But if the use of that information by those stakeholders does not result in tangible benefits to the environment and society, no one will care. Indeed, the information pessimists will be justified in telling her, “I told you so.” Ultimately, regardless of whether they are developed by corporations, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies, it is the effects and effectiveness of these information-based governance strategies that really matters. And so it is these topics we turn to in chapter 6.


(5.) Van Dam and van Trijp use construal theory to make this distinction between feasibility and desirability, while Chong and Druckman provide useful summaries of the concepts of applicability (from framing theory) and compatibility (from the literature on mandatory disclosure). The point about desirability being influenced by both reason and affect builds on insights from dual process models, which are clearly explained by Kahneman (van Dam and van Trijp, “Relevant or Determinant”; Chong and Druckman, “Framing Theory”; Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow).

(34.) Ibid., 57.

(52.) Ibid.

(53.) Ibid.