With the anxiety it generates, and the impact it has had on the way we live, the Covid pandemic is propelling us into a future full of uncertainties. Will companies have to change? Will the myth of Corporate Social Responsibility survive the formidable health and economic ordeal we are going through? Faced with the excesses of dubious capitalism, should we believe the companies that declare hand on heart that they will be more virtuous from now on? They have to change, of course, but they will not do so out of duty, but rather out of interest, faced as they are with the rise of Consumer Social Responsibility. It is designers who will be the driving force behind this change.
Are we to believe that food distribution chains, which fill their shelves every morning, have understood the meaning of the word frugality, that they will only fill their shelves with organic products from local farms? Are we to believe that airlines will stop flying their planes in the name of the end of the borderless world and the digitization of exchanges, which renders travel pointless, and that consumer product manufacturers are ready to give up the concept of market renewal? Of course not, because their survival, their development, the production of wealth, our economic autonomy and, above all, our freedom are at stake.
To suggest that companies would spontaneously become responsible and virtuous out of duty is an absurdity, even a sham. It is also an acknowledgement that they were not virtuous in the past, which is not the case, provided that their activity complied with the law. It is also taking citizen-consumers for idiots. A company has never sold, does not sell, and will never sell a product or a service out of duty, but always out of interest, and that is why it is virtuous. Corporate social responsibility is a deceptive myth that aims to destroy the capitalism that feeds it, when in fact it is its lifeblood.
The company is an organization, a system. By its very nature, intrinsically, it has no morals. That its managers and employees are virtuous and supportive, that they are part of a formidable movement of aid and compassion towards those in need, or that more generally they are concerned about the future of the planet, is obviously desirable and praiseworthy. That a company produces and sells in accordance with the law is the very least it can do. But “making it an object of morality” is only a marketing gimmick and perfectly counterproductive in the end because virtue is boundless, while the company is limited to the possibilities of technology and market opportunities. One might find it virtuous that Danone does not sell Evian water on the other side of the planet, but what would become of this formidable global brand, an ambassador for France, if it didn’t?
The bosses of mass distribution are great entrepreneurs and very respectable people, but they did not decide to double the capacity of their shopping carts in the 80s out of duty and morality. They did it out of interest and because their customers wanted them to, supported by politicians and economists who saw it as a way to curb inflation. Do you seriously think they will make smaller ones today in the name of frugality? If they are currently facilitating local distribution channels and partnerships with local producers, it is not out of the goodness of their hearts, it is because they are forced to do so by the emergence of a conscience that rejects a liberal, globalized economy. And that is perfectly respectable. Thousands of jobs depend on their wise management. “Large-scale distribution” is a formidable lever of wealth creation that benefits everyone. Wanting to make it a place of virtue is tantamount to encouraging and endorsing all the local farmers to visit the stores every morning to destroy products coming from non-local sources.
Companies must change to take into account the emergence of Consumer Social Responsibility.
The great virtue of the crisis we are experiencing is that we will probably consume differently, more sparingly, which is healthier for us and better for the planet. The process has already begun and will continue to intensify. Even though the Covid virus had nothing to do with the excesses of unchecked capitalism, the adversity we face inevitably raises questions about the world we want to live in tomorrow.
Companies will have to change because they are being forced to by a more responsible market. It’s in their best interest. We will no longer buy the services of a company that pollutes or, more generally, that does not respect the ethical codes needed to save the planet and its resources. This is the end of Corporate Social Responsibility, which is nothing but a desperate attempt to moralize the company, which is trying to justify a crime it has not committed, which is pointless in itself, in favor of Consumer Social Responsibility, an emerging concept to which companies will have to adapt. Adapting is a prerequisite for satisfying these new markets, and innovation will be the lever for this.
Design – giving meaning and form to what is technologically possible and economically profitable
The importance of being able to adapt quickly to new uses, or even to make major transformations, to change jobs, to move from product to service has become essential in a world turned upside down by changes in the economic, social and societal contexts. Change is no longer organized around the capacity to produce or sell such and such a product or service better than the others, but around the perceived meaning of a mission, or of the role played in building the future. This is what Consumer Social Responsibility means. Apple doesn’t manufacture iPhones, Apple is Promethean, it claims to connect humans to God; La Poste no longer sorts the mail, or sells stamps: La Poste now defines itself as the glue that holds together the entire social fabric of a region; Nestlé doesn’t sell yogurts anymore, Nestlé feeds the world… When the activity becomes an ethical and sacred mission, companies improve their ability to change, their potential to go from one sector to another, without necessarily changing their line of work but by defining it differently from the old industrial and marketing references on which capitalism feeds, but which are now being challenged.
Design has this virtue of representing change, speculating on tomorrow’s uses and giving them meaning. Imagining, representing and therefore explaining tomorrow, applying it to products, packaging, spatial planning, multimedia tools – all this helps us take ownership of the future and accept it. It gives meaning to the future and makes it less uncertain – and therefore less threatening. Tomorrow is uncertain by definition. What world will we live in tomorrow? What world will we leave to our children? Tomorrow may be bright or it may be terrifying, depending on the meaning we choose to give it. For designers, tomorrow is an opportunity: they draw, represent and shape the future. They give meaning and expression to imaginary concepts to make them objective and acceptable. They experiment, apply, make things true and real. They look ahead with the aim of doing things better and bringing about progress. They look for alternatives – because the new world needs something different – by constantly striving to improve. It is up to the designer to give shape and depth to the world we want to live in.
With regard to companies, design makes it possible to foresee, anticipate and plan the future and new strategies for change and innovation, because it speculates on the uses of tomorrow. It gives meaning to technology and replaces Marketing, whose tendency to force consumption is no longer in line with the concerns of responsible consumers. The consumer society is dying in favor of a society of contribution where each consumer seeks to play a role that goes beyond just satisfying his or her needs.
In the future, business leaders will have to prove their commitment to adapting to the rise of Consumer Social Responsibility. They must not do it out of kindness or honesty, but because their business model and their development depend on it. Design and designers will drive this change. Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen wrote: “the companies of the 19th and 20th centuries asked themselves the question of what is technologically possible and economically profitable, those of the 21st will ask themselves the question of what makes sense”. Design will be the key for future-thinking companies.