What is ‘ethical design’?
I believe an agency must fulfil two criteria before they can call themselves an ethical design agency:
- A commitment to running their design business in an ethical, environmentally conscious way.
- Choosing to only work for organisations making a positive social and environmental difference.
Comparing one and two
The direct impact of running a design business – in the grand scheme of things is modest. A design business doesn’t require much more than computers and internet access.
Whereas the (in)direct impact of a designer’s work can be huge. For example, helping a renewable energy company to double its customers (like I did) makes a colossal difference.
In comparison to the direct impact of running a design business, the (in)direct impact of a designer’s work is massive. It is this second criteria that is the most important. As an example, I am aware of a design agency promoting itself as being green and ethical because it offsets its direct carbon emissions. Yet, they work for, and presumably help grow, highly polluting businesses. An entirely duplicitous situation. One positive step forward, and millions back.
A plethora of agencies, having worked for years with businesses destroying our world, are jumping on the green bandwagon and suddenly morphing into purpose-driven, ethical design agencies. Often while continuing to work for the same businesses!
One well known design company, states that it is creating a better future, for people, planet and clients. This is crap because they work for many major oil companies. Other agencies are setting up subsidiary ‘purpose-driven agencies’ to cash-in on the environmental and climate crises – while the parent company continues with business as usual. Unfortunately, we’ve entered an era of twisted greenwashing doublespeak.
Sustainable web design agencies
Recently, low-carbon, sustainable web design agencies have been popping-up all over the place. In many cases, I think this proposition is questionable. Firstly, all websites should now be employing basic low-carbon design principles. The things that make the most difference, are easy to do. Green hosting, responsive images and considered design. I don’t know why this would require a specialist web design agency. Secondly, if an agency is designing low-carbon websites, for anyone, including high-carbon businesses, can they really call themselves a sustainable or ethical design agency? The small amount of carbon saved by a low-carbon website will be dwarfed by the increase in carbon from helping to grow the client’s business. For example, one sustainable web agency has worked for a car manufacturer renowned for cheating its air pollution emission tests.
More and more agencies are becoming B Corp certified. But strangely B Corp doesn’t take into account who you work for. Several B Corp creative agencies work with oil companies and other unsavoury businesses. So, again this smacks of greenwash. The agency might be operating their business in a green, ethical way, but they are not taking responsibility for the damage their work creates.
I’m not greenwashing or jumping on the ethical bandwagon. I’ve specialised in working with charities and ethical organisations longer than (nearly) anyone. Since 1996 – when I went to the Newbury road protest and exhibited my redesign of the Friends of the Earth ‘Roads to Ruin’ campaign materials at the New Designers degree show – I’ve dedicated my career to helping organisations addressing social, environmental and climate challenges. And I’ve been an environmental campaigner and activist just as long.
I foster your values
Research shows the link between people’s values and their likelihood to take positive social and environmental steps. And that the ‘compassionate’ values underpinning such action can be encouraged (see Common Cause). My clients reinforce these compassionate values that you depend on – concern for others and the natural world, community support and self-acceptance – helping to create a virtuous circle.
Do you want to work with design agencies that also work with businesses undermining your aims? I particularly remember one example, where a health charity was working with an agency, that also worked for a highly processed junk food brand. The designers could have been working for both clients at the same time! Agencies that take your money and then help unethical organisations don’t deserve your business. If you are committed to creating a sustainable and just future, get in contact with me.