Spelling Out Honesty to Gain Consumers' Trust

Honest Tea, an organic bottled tea company that was acquired by Coca-Cola a year ago, pressures itself to live up to its moniker by building on its commitment to integrity and social responsibility each year.

"The only way you can be honest is to be very humble about what you claim to do," said co-founder Seth Goldman, who also calls himself the company's Tea-EO. The Honest Tea name originally emerged to describe a beverage made from real tea leaves with less sugar than other products on the market. "The vision was to create a brand that meant more than selling tea in a bottle," he said.

To further explain its vision, the company developed a mission statement: "Honest Tea seeks to create and promote great-tasting, truly healthy, organic beverages. We strive to grow our business with the same honesty and integrity we use to craft our products with sustainability and great taste for all." To keep itself honest, the company publishes an annual mission report that outlines its achievements. In 2011, the company converted all of its teas to Fair Trade Certified, held an annual service day and launched Honest CocoaNova, among other accomplishments.

Increasingly, as consumers demand to know more about the foods they consume, the food industry is grappling with how much information manufacturers and retailers should be required to provide and in what form. For example, under a new rule that took effect March 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is requiring nutrition facts panels on packages of ground and chopped meat and poultry. The labels should list calorie content, grams of total fat and saturated fat and the fat percentage so that consumers fully understand what they are buying and can more easily compare products. At the same time, more states are considering legislation that would require foods made with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such, citing the public's right to know how foods are made.

In other cases, manufacturers make their own claims about being healthy or environmentally sustainable without explaining what criteria they're using. "When a manufacturer makes a claim, it should be backed up. That's the way to get the customer’s trust," Goldman said.

Manufacturers often point to the limited space on packaging as a reason they shouldn't be required to list every fact about a product. Honest Tea has taken the opposite stance and now prints additional information on the inside of its labels. "There's so much story we want to share, and consumers themselves are eager for information," Goldman said. Consumers can peel back the label to learn more about how the company makes its products. "We want to provide all the details," he said.

Accountability is another component of the company's position on honesty. For more than 13 years, the company has been including on its product labels an e-mail address for consumers' comments -- [email protected].