Do you want ethics with that? New platforms for designing trust

Keynote for ConnectED Conference, University of New South Wales June 2010

My apologies first. This is not an academic paper. I won’t bring you an exciting new theory or methodology. What I hope to offer you is an emerging context for design. As the Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji says, ‘culture is not only a heritage, it is a project.’ The project in this case is to find a platform for ethical design that is more than window dressing, but offers real possibility for collaboration between the two halves of the world. To be successful, this project will need design educators to prepare students for the opportunities ahead.

So let me lay out the problem.

Which chocolate do you choose?

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Let’s start with a familiar dilemma. You’re having a dinner party tonight. You decide it would be nice to offer your guests some chocolate with coffee after dinner. At the supermarket, you find there are two shelves of chocolates. The bottom shelf promises exotic flavours and organic ingredients. It guarantees to please the taste-buds of your dear friends. But the upper shelf tells a different story. These are Fair Trade chocolates, which may not taste better, but offer a better deal for the people who produced them. Which do you choose?

Increasingly, people are choosing Fair Trade. Why? It could be because they are noble minded and genuinely like to improve the lot of mankind. Yes, that would be nice, but we know human foibles too well these days. Perhaps they are aware of the global inequity. But our inner cynic suggests that rather than confront it by donating large amounts of excess cash, they prefer the easy way out—to assuage their conscience while indulging their appetites at the same time. Alternatively, perhaps they are more concerned to impress their guests. Nowadays, there’s kudos in being seen to support a social cause, whether it’s indigenous welfare or global poverty. Inserting some Fair Trade chocolate after dinner is a subtle way of making the right impression.

Whether you subscribe to the idealistic or cynical reading, ethics is becoming an increasingly important element in consumption. In this paper, I’d like to trace one particular ethical theme as it emerged from colonisation and examine where it might be leading in the future.

Global justice is ‘so 80s’

The very positive story of globalisation as opening societies and markets to international exchange has also unlocked the negative story of obvious inequity in the distribution of resources. This is the story of the ‘other half’—how the North discovered the great potential for wealth in the South and developed strategies for acquiring and keeping it.

As a lucky country, the efforts of colonisers in Australia were rewarded with rich mines and fertile farms, particularly for sheep and cattle. But not everyone was so fortunate. It was the role of missionaries to help those ‘unlucky ones’ dispossessed from their land for the sake of national prosperity. They were not there to stop the march to progress, but as Daisy Bates expressed it, to ‘smooth the pillow of the dying race’. The principle theme here is pity for the inevitable victims of progress.

Since then we’ve become a little more ambivalent about Western civilisation. Indigenous peoples are seen to represent not only an inevitable casualty of our greed, but also a common humanity. It was the Beatle, George Harrison, who in 1971 initiated the alliance between popular music and global suffering with A Concert for Bangladesh, to help victims of the Bangladesh Liberation War. The story of popular charity reached a peak in the mid-eighties, with Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid concerts to aid famine relief in Ethiopia and Michael Jackson’s We are the World, the fasted selling single of all time, dedicated to raising money for Africa.

While noble in its time, such popular gestures seem naive in retrospect. They were big on symbolism and camaraderie, but the link to practical gains was never clear. In retrospect, we might call them, ‘feel good exercises.’

The 21st century heralded a realism in popular mass philanthropy. In 2005, the Make Poverty History campaign, led by celebrities like Bono, targeted the G8 Summit in Gleneagles with a mass campaign involving concerts and silicone awareness bracelets. It was focused on specific systemic reforms, such as the cancellation of debt to third world countries.

While commendable in its realism, such campaigns are vulnerable to the criticism that they imply an image of a passive South that requires the intervention of the all-powerful North. One unfortunate side-effect of such an asymmetrical arrangement is a ‘compassion fatigue’. Our spirits sink at yet another image of starving children with bloated bellies.

Recently, we have seen an attempt to counter the ‘do-gooder’ appeal of philanthropy by making it sexy. The issue of Vanity Fair that Bono edited contained positive stories about a creative and optimistic Africa. And there are now many fashion companies that are marketing their third world roots, such as Juno, a company in New York that places Kenyan fabrics on the cat walk. But this path is inherently unsustainable, as the very feature of fashion is its temporary nature. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.’

With such changes in the nature of popular philanthropy, it is easy to reduce it to the fashions of the day. While we might be pleased that celebrities find it fashionable to align themselves with the fight against poverty in Africa, we know that fashion is cyclical and there will be an inevitable reaction against this in time. Oxfam have sensed this danger and countered with a new campaign that makes a virtue of 80s retro embarrassment, saying ‘giving never goes out of fashion.’ While fashion offers a way out from the smugness of global ‘do-gooders’, it is a particularly fickle conduit for exchange between North and South.

Where does design fit into this? During the history of this popular philanthropy, the world of design tended to be identified with the world of excess. The designer world was one of luxury and splendour available to only a few. But this changed in the mid-2000s. This turn-around for design reached its mea culpa moment with the confession in 2007 of Philippe Starke on the TED video site.

Design has a new global sense of responsibility. In 2007, entrepreneur Paul Polak founded Design for the other 90%, which became a touring exhibition starting at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. He argued that, ‘The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.’ Design for the other 90% resonates with the Make Poverty History campaign in two ways. First, it re-directs focus of our energies away from personal wealth-making to global justice. Second, it looks for practical solutions rather than symbolic gestures. But as with global philanthropy, this movement is vulnerable to the criticism that it reproduces an essentially unequal world of passive South and creative North.

New platforms

So how do we get ourselves out of this cycle? The solution, in one way, is quite simple, but also breathtakingly complex. The missing piece in this is the voice of the person who is the subject of this attention—the Global South. Has anyone asked them what they want? It’s widely recognised that the global balance is changing and that nations once silenced by poverty are now leading players on the world stage, such as China, India and Brazil. A great challenge for our time is to find a platform on which we can develop North-South dialogue. Such a platform should not just be a conduit for Western aid, but it should also be a reciprocal medium for exchange.

While celebrities have been putting Africa in the spotlight, on the sidelines there are less glamorous but arguably more effective conduits for development. These are alternative economic and value systems that attempt to factor in more than just market values for consumers. They seek to include also the experience of the producers themselves.

Fair Trade

During the 20th century, the Fair Trade movement has evolved quietly in suburbs and villages to provide consumers with a brand that assures them they are supporting the interests of third world producers. Rather than a mere gesture of support, Fair Trade attempts to embed itself in the economic system and so align consumption with philanthropy.

Fair Trade began in 1950 as a program by the Mennonite Church in the United States to further their missionary aims. It eventually shed its religious associations and became a branded product.The first Fair Trade consumer label was launched in 1988 by the Dutch company, Max Havelaar in partnership with a Mexican cooperative. During the mid 2000s, ­­Fair Trade sales of coffee and chocolate increased at a rate of around 50% a year. The advantage of Fair Trade is that it extends a common standard of labour conditions across the entire range of products. But this very standardisation makes it difficult to generalise in the design area, where one size does not fit all.

Chain of Custody

More specific to the design area are codes that relate to materials finding their way into finished products. The Chain of Custody was developed so that when you buy a piece of furniture you can know something about the conditions in which the timber was produced.

The Forestry Stewardship Council, through its accredited organisations, tracks the journey of material across the production process, from the forest to the consumer. It covers problems that may arise in unethical practices, such as illegal harvesting, violation of civil rights, endangering land of biological or cultural value, sourced from natural or genetically modified forest. Certification covers all stages of the process, from forestry, milling, manufacture and sale.

It’s an expensive process, costing around $50,000 plus travel expenses for creditors. But expense is worth it for high-volume companies that can add value through this ethical stamp. While useful in tracking ethics through a supply chain, the Chain of Custody is specific to material worth. It does not apply to intellectual property, which is one of the main components of design value.

World of Good

The World of Good platform sustains a particular set of concepts for reflecting the ethical value of goods. World of Good was founded in 2004 by two business graduates of Indian descent from Berkeley. Priya Haji and Siddharth Sanghvi . With companies such as Disney and Hallmark, they developed mainstream retail product lines for third world artisans. Earlier this year, their brand and related assets were acquired by ebay. Now the World of Good site within ebay offers products made by poor communities around the world.

There are many such online retailers of third world products, but World of Good is distinct in the development of a platform that commodifies trust as a component of the final product. World of Good works with organisations known as Trust Providers, who provide a guarantee that the products they are selling are of genuine philanthropic benefit. These benefits are divided into social and natural. The overall system is known as trustology. An essential component of the trustology is what is known as the ‘goodprint’ that includes details of the product’s positive moral impact. It’s like a food ingredient label, except for ethics.

So with the case of the Cotton Rounded Hill Tribe shoulder bag, the seller has been verified by the Trust Provider known as Empowerment Works. The product’s goodprint includes ‘a cooperative organisation’, ‘produced communally by women in a minority tribal group’ and made ‘from biodegradable materials.’

As a trading platform, ebay enables communication between buyer and seller, as well as a rating system. World of Good has a parallel capacity for dialogue. Each seller has a section on the site where they can communicate with the buyer. However, the basic moral lie of the land is a world of good rich people purchasing goods from grateful poor people. The potential for exchange is quite constrained.

The Two Hands Project

There is a third platform that is currently in development. This is being developed to support an informal dialogue occurring in the world of design. Many designers are now working with traditional communities in product development. The idea is to generate economic growth in a way that does not harm communities, as would be the case with resource extraction or sweatshops. In many cases, traditional crafts have lost their local markets, due to globalisation, and thus have to export their goods if they are to survive. Here designers come providing information about urban markets so that goods can be adapted to fit retail demands.

Take the example of the work by German jeweller designer Martin Dempf. In Rwanda there was a rich tradition of basket-making using papyrus grass involving dynamic designs. With the introduction of plastic bags, baskets were no longer necessary and thus they were no longer being made. The traditional craft was being forgotten. As part of a German development mission, Martina conducted workshops with women to refine the techniques and adjust the designs so that they could be converted into jewellery. Martina was then able to commission finely woven components from the women that she frames in silver. At the same time, the women have developed their own product line of jewellery without silver that they market through a website. Thus a cultural practice make obsolete through globalisation is revived through its transposition into an alternative format for export.

A parallel collaboration is occurring here in Sydney with Koskela designs, who commission Indigenous basket-weavers from Elcho Island to create covers for lampshades that they market for high-end clients. While basket-making is not so endangered as in Rwanda, its production is quite limited to specialist collectors. Koskela enables a bridge between the remote island community and the inner sanctum of corporate Australia.

We know that whenever solutions seem too ideal, it awakens our inner-cynic. While the stories that are associated with such products are generally positive, they don’t bear too close attention. Questions begin to arise. How do the women feel about this process? Is it humiliating to be working the primitive way while their neighbours are off getting an education to be part of the workforce? What was the creative involvement of the women? Was the design created solely by the designer, or was there input from the producers as well?

There is a project currently underway to consider how a stable platform might be developed for both designers and producers. The aim of the Two Hands Project is to open up the question of how the world of design relates to the world of production, art to craft, writing to printing, etc. The main vehicle for this is a Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations, which concerns itself with how a creator and a producer come to an arrangement in working together, and how this is communicated to the consumer. But its realisation extends naturally to a network of designers and communities interested in working together, as well as a forum for discussing critical issues. The Code is intrinsically open-ended, subject to constant review. For instance, there is much discussion at the moment about whether the use machine-tools is a good or bad thing for craft. Views may well change with time, particularly as we understand better the experience of the producer.

The Code itself is based on a UNESCO report, Designers Meet Artisans publication, which sought to present an equitable relationship between the traditional producers and the representatives of urban markets. The first iteration of the Code of Practice is limited to the Asia Pacific region. It will hopefully facilitate the increasing number of partnerships between creative practitioners from Australian urban centres and communities in Indigenous Australia and the Asia Pacific. These creative practitioners include artists, designers and retailers who are taking advantage of the relatively cheap skilled craft labour in countries like Indonesia, India and Vietnam, to produce finely made goods, like the sculptures by Rodney Glick that you might have seen at Cockatoo Island in the Sydney Biennale. There is great potential for both sides in these partnerships. For traditional communities, they have the opportunity to engage their distinct craft skills with the urban experience. Here is potential for the younger generation, otherwise draw inexorably to the cities for their future, to find a means of taking something of their distinct identity with them. And for urban markets, these partnerships offer some relief from the sterile factory processes and connection with traditional values that are important for connections between people and their place.

One of the considerations in such a code is the moral rights of producer. Since the Berne Convention, we have come to accept the moral rights of the creator in areas like attribution. However, the contribution of the producer is left to the whim of the marketing department—with the notable exception of the film industry. This hierarchy is based on the presumption that the contribution of the creator is unique, while its realisation is incidental. This is no doubt the case in many instances, and underpins the process of out-sourcing that has seen manufacturing move to China. But with skills shortages in the West, it is becoming increasingly apparent that craft plays a critical role in creative industries. At a recent UNESCO meeting, the creative director of Lanvin said that he may have to close his haute couture operation because his cutter was retiring and he couldn’t find anyone to replace her. In such cases where skills exercise a critical agency in the design process, it seems better for all that they are accredited and others are encouraged to pursue the honourable backstage crafts.

The Code is designed as a platform for carrying the information of the creative process from the site of production to its consumption. It will contain information about materials, cultural meanings and innovations.

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All good, but perhaps too good. On their own, these elements do little to change the basic lie of the land, where producers labour away making delightful and intriguing objects for the enjoyment of the consumers. Perhaps such a platform can do a little more than provide the ethical consumer with information about their purchase.

Ethics beyond consumption

We see all these platforms developing that provide us with information about the worthiness of the production, but what about consumption? Why does ethical design end at the shop counter?

Along with the customer always being right, it is a taken for granted aspect of our economy that control over goods effectively ceases once the shrink-wrap is broken. We have an ethically made, sustainable product, but what guarantee is there that the consumer will keep to that spirit. Yet clearly one of the great problems in our world is rampant consumption, aided by high product disposability.

One possible answer lies in the legal system, where there exists a particular instrument that seeks to limit the use to which a purchase may be used. The covenant is a constraint exercised on the purchaser. Someone may, for instance, place a covenant on the sale of land so that it be maintained as a wilderness. The West Australian Department of Environment and Conservation provides assistance in those placing perpetual conservation covenants on their land.

A covenant-like system can be found in the area of intellectual property. Through Creative Commons, otherwise copyrighted material is freely available to anyone on the proviso that they use this material only for non-commercial purposes.

There’s an interesting experience applying this principle to jewellery. The Melbourne-based jeweller Vicki Mason has designed a series of brooches that carry a message about communal gardens as a practical step towards Australia becoming a republic. If you see someone wearing one of these, and express admiration for it, then you are likely to be given it. But it will be given to you only if you agree to the same condition, once someone else praises it.

Mason’s project introduces the economy of the gift, whereby an object given to you for free usually entails obligation of reciprocation. Some community projects now entail producing cheap objects to be distributed for free thus creating a sense of obligation in the recipient to give something back, as in the case of the Tsunamika doll produce by Upasana in India.

Luck

But given the sacred precept that the customer is always right, where might be the appeal of the covenant. To explore its potential, there is a project currently underway called Southern Charms which concerns the relatively neglected element of design—luck. To an extent, depending on chance seems the antithesis of the whole design project, yet it is very much an ongoing condition of life.

Traditionally, most jewellery served to either protect the user against misfortunate or ensure good luck for the future. A number of objects survived into the modern era, such as crucifixes. We associate these with superstition. We no longer believe that our fate is controlled by gods, angels or demons. Yet, we still persist in believing in luck. We say ‘good luck with…’

What is this luck? It essentially pertains to a venture where we cannot be sure of the outcome. There are many that we face individually, such as going for a job interview or undergoing cancer treatment. But there are also those that we face collectively, particularly climate change.

The Southern Charms project is about adapting traditional charms to contemporary problems. We are currently in the workshop phase. There have been workshops in Chile concerning responses to earthquake. The Melbourne workshop will deal with the threat of bushfires. The Sydney workshop, occurring this afternoon, has its own particular condition.

In designing for luck, the origins of the object are particularly important—who gave it to you and how it was produced. But its effectiveness also depends on its use. More esoteric objects require a recitation. Chinese charms often need to be place in particular parts of the house. And in most cases they need to be worn to be effective. It’s a fascinating challenge as it seems to go against basic principles of modern design, which aim for durability and adaptability, or smartness. ‘Power objects’ require the intervention of users to be effective. While this might seem a burden, think of the appeal of other household items such as pets and plants, whose very need for our attention is part of their appeal.

Skills for the future design challenge

I’d like to conclude on a note of appeal. In order to realise the potential of a platform like this, particular skills are required. Theoretically, we need an ecological design thinking that can encompass the entire product cycle, including the act of consumption. This will include resources such as Actor Network Theory. Methodologically, we need designers skilled in a creative diplomacy, who can build the trust that is essential to creative partnerships. Much of this can be drawn from the discipline of anthropology, which has learnt the art of patience in reading carefully from a community before jumping to conclusions. And finally, we need students with a curiosity not only about the future but also the past. There is much to be gained in recovering objects that once played such an important part in our lives, like lucky charms, to consider their role and whether can be remade for our urban lifestyles.

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For this purpose, we need designers who aren’t necessarily going to invent magical new objects that drop from the sky. These new designers will be like bridges between two worlds, the North and the South, rich and poor, consumer and producer—two worlds that constitute our increasingly shrinking planet.

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