Information, brands and transparency

Last night we hosted a fascinating seminar featuring the team from the EPSRC Fair Tracing Project. The project seeks to bolster the ethical objectives of fair trade by providing consumers and producers with a means of electronically tracing the various steps in the production of fair trade products. One of the potential killer applications on which the team are working is the display of a pie chart that shows the breakdown of revenue for a product in terms of who gets what. Another is the use of Google Maps to trace the distance travelled by produce before it reaches the supermarket shelf.

Dorothea Kline and Maria Jose Montero from the Geography Department at Royal Holloway are team members. Their colleagues are drawn from an interesting mix of disciplinary backgrounds, including information systems, computer science, and interface design.

The discussion was immensely interesting and centred upon a potential paradox: if we give consumers very detailed information about fair trade products, are we not at risk of hollowing out the fair trade brand?

Brands provide shortcuts: for good or ill, they provide many of us with shortcuts to decision-making. We are often, as the social psychologists say, 'cognitive misers': we take the easiest path to a decision based on the minimum of information. Brands are often powerful precisely because they are opaque.

Providing much richer information for fair trade goods renders the whole process less opaque, and therefore less simple and less powerful than a simple fair trade sticker. Do the benefits of transparency outweigh the costs?