Davos, Switzerland CNN Business  — 

The corporate, political and cultural elite gathered in Davos are expressing worries about a disturbing trend: The erosion of public trust in institutions and companies.

World Economic Forum attendees said the lack of faith in everything from governments to social media platforms is hampering innovation and contributing to widening inequality.

Davos billboards tout the importance of trust. On the main approach to the conference venue, the consulting firm Accenture has erected a large sign that reads:

“Trust is the ultimate currency.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel used a prime speaking slot to argue that the global financial crisis, which began a decade ago, has eroded public trust in companies and governments.

“Politicians have lost a lot of their credit in the eyes of the world, but also the financial and banking sector has lost a lot of its credibility,” she said. “A stable international financial system has indeed been damaged quite significantly, and we have to do everything in order to avoid a repetition of that.”

Ginni Rometty, the chief executive of IBM (IBM), said the lack of trust in society is “underpinning” the rise of populist movements around the world. And it’s causing problems for business.

“You can see this mounting as an issue, it’s in tech but even more broadly, I call it a trust headwind because there have some been misuses of data, and before this derails the entire digital economy … I think we have to deal head on with trust,” Rometty told CNN’s Julia Chatterley in Davos.

The tech industry, and especially social media companies, have come under intense scrutiny following a series of data misuse scandals. Most avoided the limelight in Davos. Facebook (FB) had a presence in the Swiss mountain town, but Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg stayed away from the main stages.

“Look at how their brands have been impacted,” Salesforce (CRM) founder Marc Benioff said when asked during a session about people dropping off social media platforms.

“If we were here at the World Economic Forum three or four years ago, we would be talking about those companies as if they had just walked off Mount Sinai. The reality is now we’re talking about ‘gee, where did they actually come from,’ and maybe it wasn’t a high place.”

Benioff, a frequent critic of his own industry, said trust has to be a company’s highest principle.

“You have to chose. What is your highest value? Are you about trust or are you about success? And I think sometimes people put success above trust. I’m all for success …. but we cannot put success above trust,” he said.

Microsoft (MSFT) President Brad Smith said during a panel that a year of tech crises had brought together “latent but rising public concerns.”

Now that the problems have been acknowledged, he said the next step was taking action.

“Ultimately it’s all a matter of doing something. The public has developed a keen ability to differentiate between words and deeds,” he said. “You’re not going to sustain trust unless there’s consistency action and transparency.”