In 1986–more than a quarter of a century ago–the Superfund was amended after a long, contentious process. I was privileged to be deeply involved.
Most of the public and political attention was, understandably, focused on the big-ticket items of the Superfund itself. At least as important were the new Toxics Release Inventory [TRI] provisions.
Surprising to many, the TRI provisions almost immediately emerged as pivotal. Though the Internet was not universal as today, simply publishing the data of releases occasioned a revelation in many quarters. It could have a significant effect in localities. In some cases, it predictably energized individual citizens and groups to examine more closely the operations of facilities in their midst.
The TRI had yet another effect: it ensured that top management of large companies would become aware of their emissions in a way they could fully comprehend. The numbers were no longer just another set of statistics in a mind-numbing series of corporate reports.
Executives would hear about their companies’ emissions from family, from friends, and in the news. They were asked basic questions that were hard to answer. This was consequential. Many wise CEOs recognized that high levels of pollution posed a threat not only to their long-term reputational interests, but also to their near-term brand value. Such information also prompted internal queries about wasteful industrial processes that could be immediately improved, bolstering the triple bottom line of economics, environment and social needs.
In the Digital Age, such information has become universally recognized as valuable from many perspectives. The EPA is adding the role of curator to its longstanding, more traditional regulatory roles.
In the age of universal, involuntary transparency, these ongoing changes are significant. Where will they lead? How can companies, NGOs, and other stakeholders most effectively serve in the new world of 21st century leadership? Will the government agencies that initially collect such data earn the credibility to be authoritative curators? Or will competing curators emerge, each facing the discipline and demands of transparency?
The TRI experience has universal application. All enterprises are having to reassess their positions in terms of data collection and retention, with an eye toward the inevitability of disclosure. Smart executives will stay ahead of this curve, helping to define new norms rather than engaging in futile, self-serving resistance. This is just one part of a much larger mosaic, in which service and accountability are extending far beyond traditional, 20th-century stakeholders.
Immense service and leadership opportunities await….
US EPA Toxics Release Inventory Exhibits Power of Information