What does “social responsibility” mean to you?
These two buzzwords are used by corporates and governments the world over and has become so important and strategic that governments give companies various incentives: tax incentives and contributing to the company’s broad based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) status, to name a few, to become socially responsible and socially aware. Companies now have an incentive to “do good” and “look good” in the face of the public.
Large corporates, through their Corporate Social Investment (CSI) divisions are riding the wave of being socially aware. Banks, retailers, medical suppliers, beverage companies, even the petroleum industry are riding the CSI wave. Even freelancers, in whatever industry they operate, and in whatever capacity, give of their time and expertise to do pro bono work for non-governmental organisations, non-profit organisations, charities and foundations.
Why has the design industry not become socially aware when designing their products? Have designers avoided being accountable to the consumers who use the products they design? Richard Perez, Director at … XYZ Design, a Design and Innovation consultancy, based in Cape Town admitted it was time the design industry adopted guidelines to steer it toward being socially responsible, aware, and accountable.
“People talk about industrial design as if we are the evil of mass consumption. But there is a move to a more socially aware way of producing products. There is a drive to find a balance,” said Perez. Getting in line with socially responsibility has not been completely absent from the design industry. Initiatives such The Design Accord and Human-Centred toolkit from design consultancies and associates have put the spotlight on how designers and design consultancies changed their attitudes when, and to, designing.
However, the measuring of social design efficacy in the long term can prove impossible if social design has been incubated and measured under unique and differing initiatives. In South Africa, the South African Bureau of Standards upholds standard practices in the country. Another initiative that has brought best practice guidelines to the fore, especially in trying to get companies and organisations accountable to the general public, is the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).
ISO develops and publishes international standards and is the largest developer and publisher of standards with 163 member countries, including South Africa. According to documentation released by ISO, it “aims to be a first step in helping all types of organisations in both the public and private sectors to consider implementing ISO 26000 as a way to achieve the benefits of operating in a socially responsible manner”. ISO 26 000 deals specifically with social responsibility standards.
It does not force companies to adhere to its standard guidelines. Instead it encourages groups, business and individuals to become more socially aware, thus creating sustainability within a specific industry or industries. “We (the design industry) have never really had to adhere to a socially responsible standard. ISO 26000 looks at a bigger system. It gives you credibility in the market. If you have a client who is funding a project they should insist that you follow such a best practice standard, so that they know that you as a designer are looking at things from a systems level as well as the fact that their money is being well spent,” Perez said.
Some of the ISO 26000 guidelines include:
- concepts, terms and definitions related to social responsibility;
- the background, trends and characteristics of social responsibility;
- principles and practices relating to social responsibility;
- the core subjects and issues of social responsibility;
- integrating, implementing and promoting socially responsible behaviour throughout the organization and, through its policies and practices, within its sphere of influence;
- identifying and engaging with stakeholders; and
- communicating commitments, performance and other information related to social responsibility.
These guidelines are also a way to measure what is being done within the context of social awareness. It promotes accountability – where a social audit from communities holds you to account. Said Perez: “The power really sits with the consumer. When the consumer refuses to buy your product, if they don’t like the way you have manufactured or designed it, they have the power to not buy and that is when companies take note.” Perez believed it is important for the design industry, especially in Africa, to adhere to social guidelines.
He said that while designers have a specific outcome in mind, it was important to design a product within standard regulations, even if those regulations are not bound legally. “There are standards that are linked to the product that you have to develop. Where there isn’t a standard following the design process, there will always be an empty space. “One is allowed to modify the guidelines but it’s always good to have direction to get the best outcome,” he added.
Geoff Visser, a research fellow in the office of the CEO of the South African Bureau of Standards, said it was always advisable for organisations to become more socially aware. “It (ISO 26000) is not intended as a certification document and also does not really apply to products which, in my opinion, make it a bit difficult in the industrial design setting. However, having said that, designers are increasingly not only designing a product but need to take into account that full product realisation process. They need to take cognizance not only of the products tangible characteristics but the social issues that go into the materials, components and even the logistics of getting them together,” said Visser.
He added that designing for sustainability would take on a new dimension “in that as the designer, you need to look beyond the product”. “By choosing a standardised framework, organisations can compile aggregated sustainability reports based on the aggregated impact of the products in their repertoire; a diverse and sometimes flexible supply chain and across sites in different locations around the world,” said Visser.
Another dimension brought in by Visser was a designer adhering to their client’s current social commitment. He said that while some in the design industry do not adhere to standard practice, their client might, making ISO 26000 an “important consideration that can be useful in feeding into these reporting initiatives”. While Perez said that although … XYZ Design believes in the relevance of ISO 26000,often due to constraints it cannot apply all its fundamentals but “using these standards would be in everyone’s interest”.
“We’re not experts in social design but it’s about creating awareness. It’s not just about issues such as climate change and global warming when you start the process of thinking about a design solution. We need to start looking at community development, human rights, fair operating practices, etc. “The purpose is that people should embrace and use it (ISO 26000). We’re not saying that we use it as the gospel, but it’s important for organisations to be aware of it and where possible try and apply it,” Perez added.
Article commissioned and edited by Design With Africa and written by Nadine Christians