Blog: Dean BestSmoke, mirrors or transparency?

Dean Best | 2 October 2009

The news yesterday that Asda is attempting to turn itself into the paragon of transparency is well-timed.

Few can blame the business for trying to leverage some trust, given the general public's dissatisfaction with its major corporations, who we continue to bail out because of their own greed; its politicians, who still ask us to vote for them, despite their greed; and our sportsmen, who will even crash a Formula 1 car into a barrier at 100 mph in the pursuit of their greed.

So why then has the announcement by Asda's CEO Andy Bond been received so flatly.

“Forget online Britney Spears clips: Asda wants you to switch to a live webcam of workers at its carrot factory. It's part of the grocer's desire to boost confidence in its supply chain. Laudable enough, but don't people have better things to do with their time than watch carrot chopping?” the Independent asked today. And it was not alone.

Are we all being far too cynical? Perhaps the events of the last year have persuaded us to look  for the spin doctor's hand in every announcement by a major business. Bond himself says: “Events over the past year mean that faith in big businesses is lower than it’s ever been – because people have stopped trusting what’s going on behind closed doors. So, from today, there is no ‘behind the scenes’ at Asda.

“Our aim is to be a truly open, accessible and transparent business so that we can rebuild trust, and drive customer loyalty. I firmly believe that customer loyalty cannot be bought with plastic points or discount vouchers. It has to be earned.”

But that is exactly the point. Trust does have to be earned, and a few pictures of carrots being chopped up are not going to be enough.

In Bond's defence, this is only the beginning of the project, and he claims that the supermarket will give its consumers a glimpse into the areas of the business they want to see. Furthermore, plans for a "truly transparent" store, in South Wales "where glass walls will replace brick walls, giving a unique window into areas normally out of view", are a nice touch.

However, any skeletons – if there are any - in Asda's closets are not going to be found at the carrot factory, but in the boardrooms at HQ, in the details of the contracts with its suppliers and in the third world factories that produce its clothing ranges. No competitive business, particularly one owned by the secretive Wal-Mart is going to release a warts and all expose on that side of its operations. Yet, unless it does, Asda's claims of transparency fall short.


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