Design and Corporate Social Responsibility: A matter of morals or personal gain?

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A recent presentation given to the Regional Leaders of Western France led me not only to reflect on what binds Corporate Social Responsibility to the Design field, but also question the role that the designer plays there within. What if design were synonymous with “sustainable business?”

At a conference held in Denver, Colorado (USA) back in 2011, the Chief Design Officer of a global corporation specializing in hygiene products explained to us that the entire eco-design process had done away with excess cardboard packaging for a retail item in dental care. The possibility to tack on instructions for use, enabling the consumer to make an educated and not arbitrary decision, was a non-option; therefore, the item, in its entirety, underwent massive changes in terms of its shape, ergonomics, cost, and image, not to mention the material used, the “facing”, and the graphic aspect, among others.

This initiative, as well as the resulting transformations, factor into what is better known as “Corporate Social Responsibility” or CSR. The notion strives to foster awareness and action around a company’s operations, their impact on the environment, and the “presence and leverage needed to confront the challenges linked to sustainable development.”

Eliminating excess packaging is synonymous with “saving” acres and acres of trees, and therefore, the right thing to do all-around.

However, when asked what price tag was placed on all of it, he replied in terms of how much money he ended up saving the company. So, was the initiative truly carried out for an environmentally-oriented purpose, out of necessity, or personal gain?

Leading hotels are also hopping on the eco-bandwagon, and, as a result, are asking guests to be less wasteful by reusing bath towels in an alleged effort to cut down on water consumption and anti-ecological wash cycles. Here again, is this out of necessity or personal gain? Is management looking to pocket a bit more change or beef up its bottom line? Social Responsibility or judicious decision-making? A mix of both, no doubt, and kudos for the cleverness.

A company’s number one priority is to generate added value, and to give the impression that its initiatives are padded with eco-fueled intentions doesn’t really hold water. A company is a well-oiled machine designed to produce and sell. And when it sells, it does so with <i>itself</i> in mind. Although there is little room for morality, ultimately things pan out positively for all parties. Added value is nothing other than the financial benefits, which, naturally, are to be redistributed fairly and equally, first to company shareholders, and then to society.

Reality, though, would prove otherwise. The added value is not redistributed as fairly or as equally as one would think. As the saying goes, “Riches to riches” flawlessly illustrates to what extent inequalities are taking a turn for the worst. The gap between the rich and the poor is ever-plunging. Wealth is limited to a select few, and politicians seem to be at a loss when it comes to reintegrating some kind of balance into the system and society. Marx predicted the collapse of capitalism through the working class; Schumpeter predicted it through the intellectuals. The irony of it all may just be that the now financial gurus who once depended on this money-making machine<b> </b>may very well be the same ones who ultimately drive it and capitalism into the ground. In other words, they would be cutting off their nose to spite their face.

That said, for the economy’s strategic actors, generating added value needs to happen. Corporate Social Responsibility’s top objective is to keep a close eye on this. If companies are to put the environment first, then they first need to be competitive. If they can’t generate added value, the machine is bound to shut down entirely.

Therefore, once numbers are met and financial gain is out of the way, we can then focus our time and energy on the environment, sustainable development, and earth-friendly deeds to help save the planet, not to mention performing our duty as eco-responsible and -respectful citizens, for, when all is said and done, everything is done in the interest of each. It isn’t such a bad thing at the end of the day to be in this frame of mind; on the contrary, it is actually quite invigorating because we can put it to use as leverage to rethink how a business is structured and how it functions, what it needs to anticipate and address potential obstacles, be they in relation to the environment or team management, and getting employees on board ground-breaking projects by attributing meaning not only to what they do, but how they go about it. As if that were not invigorating enough, the in-house and external transformations down the road are bound to spark myriad questions, if not resistance. Change may often, if not always, evoke reason for concern or doubt, but it also harbors its fair share of hope, values, and meaning.

CSR is the perfect occasion for a company to align its product offering with new, “greener” markets aimed at defending and demanding “cleaner”, “safer”, and more “sustainable” products.

Stagnating is not an option these days for businesses. They need to keep their eyes peeled for new challenges and innovative solutions, and adapt to a world in a constant state of flux. As expressed by philosopher Stiegler, this constant state of flux goes hand-in-hand with a society whose products and services are driven more and more by consumers and the decisions they make. Businesses also need to keep pace with the challenges linked to retail consumer behavior and shopping trends. What is in store for companies whose production and sales models depend on new markets when the thought of replacing a dishwasher, car or even copy machine is losing momentum with each passing day? Retail industries are preparing to shift from production of goods to that of services in an attempt to avoid becoming obsolete. The real reason underlying social responsibility is that it enables each and every one the opportunity to reflect on the unknowns embedded in economic change, restructuration, and sustainability.

Fueling and fostering this societal endeavor is the designer. Design takes root from the desire to restore humanity and human input in industry, although the well-oiled machine and scientific-based production have desperately tried otherwise.

A designer is to reflect on the various purposes an object may have, to spin that usage, bring it to life, and give it meaning. It goes without saying that the designer role also involves making adjustments as and when necessary to improve and broaden usage functionality. As a result, the design process is humanist in nature. Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” But how? What should this change look like? With this idea alone, we’re well on our way to cracking the mystery of design and the fruits of its labor. The combination of a capitalist system confronted with a systemic crisis and the face of business pending an imminent and radical facelift enables the designer to not only view the economic potential from a much wider angle, but also position it with people, progress, and especially the environment in mind despite the long-standing and non-negligible importance placed on financial gain inherent in all market mechanisms. What is good for the environment can also be good for businesses and the economy as a whole.

CSR is the designer’s DNA and driving force behind every move.

Rector of Kolding School of Design in Denmark, Elsebeth Gerneer Nielsen writes, “Businesses in the 20<sup>th</sup> century asked themselves the question of what is technologically possible and economically profitable; those of the 21<sup>st</sup> century need to ask themselves what makes sense.” CSR means making sense of the far-reaching changes to come. And when it involves bringing companies on board, discerning their needs, and guiding them accordingly, the designer, yet again, is pivotal. For innovation to fully embody all that is ethical, its purpose needs to surpass financial gain, an aspect that tends to overpower the real priorities, not to mention a more lucid thought process.

CSR is a fabulous conduit for generating added value. This is the fundamentally virtuous rationale. Let’s be careful not to confuse “obligation” and “personal gain.” Toyota doesn’t manufacture hybrid vehicles because it feels it has to, but rather because the “ecological conscience” of its market is just starting to surface, a result of which unveils an extremely promising future. There is no reason to hang one’s head in shame by admitting this. Let’s not go on the hunt either for virtues or morals in a context where there are not any. Toyota boasts millions of jobs worldwide, and that alone, is proof of a positive step in the right direction; that is, unless a car-free world is in the works… Hope springs eternal.

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