(Originally written and posted at www.wikinomics.com)
To hold major corporations accountable for their actions, citizens need to vote with their dollars. Rewarding companies for corporate social responsibility and punishing those who partake in unethical practices is crucial in shaping corporate behaviour. Yet this is difficult to do. For social activists who gather the information, broadcasting it can be a major challenge.
While information is available, you generally have to search for it. Admittedly, while I care a great deal about ethical corporate behaviour, I simply don’t have the time to research the companies that produce all of the goods and services I pay for. I suspect that many consumers would be interested in more accessible information regarding corporate behaviour, but are limited by this same constraint.
Slowly, information is becoming available about products attached to “good” practices, as we’ve seen with fair trade labelling organizations. But what about labelling the “bad” products? Producers aren’t going to do this, nor will retailers.
This is where Knowmore.org can play a role. Dedicated to revealing unethical business practices, Knowmore has 2 main features. First, the site is based on a wiki, where registered editors (anyone can become one) are encouraged to build on their library of companies and edit the company wikis. The five key issues are worker’s rights, human rights, environmental concerns, political influence and business ethics.
The more innovative feature, however, is the Firefox add-on that brings all of this information to your browser when you visit a company’s website or search for them on Google.
Once a user adds the Knowmore application, they’ll get information resembling the image I’ve posted above (the top bar urging the boycott shows up on the Nike website, and the text below it is the hit that comes back on Google).
When I searched “Nike” on google, all 5 of the key issues came up as ‘red’, indicating that the wiki editors at Knowmore have major concerns on each metric. For comparison, when I search Pfizer, I see that they (according to Knowmore) have issues with human rights and business ethics, although the other 3 areas get a “yellow”.
Similar to LittleSis (which is admittedly only a Beta), Knowmore has shortcomings based on usage. For this site to reach its potential, it would really need a Wikipedia-sized following to broaden its library of companies, and to watch over the editing to ensure fairness and accuracy. Knowmore also has consistency problems – some of the companies get flagged on Google search, some do not (even when they’re in the wiki library). Moreover, some companies get a notification pop-up on their website (see Nike above), but others do not. I think this shortcoming relates to Knowmore’s reach – as with other Gov 2.0 applications, it needs a very broad user base in order to fulfill its potential.
Still, I love this potential. As more consumers are researching products and making purchases online, the Knowmore feature serves as a push-based alert (one you opt-in to by downloading it), notifying the user about corporate ethics issues that they otherwise wouldn’t have taken the time to research. Not every consumer is a social activist, and very few conduct corporate research for their purchases. But I suspect that many, if alerted to, say, human rights abuses, might think twice before buying a product from a questionable source (especially when other options are available).
Knowmore has the potential to bring a truly open participatory process into corporate regulation. Using an interface and editing process similar to Wikipedia, critical mass could create a very accurate, transparent database to monitor corporate behaviour. Tying this to consumers’ browsers might actually cause companies to rethink some of their policies.
So how do you get consumers to download this application? Would they be interested? How can we help Knowmore, or a similar application, reach critical mass? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.