It’s hard to escape it. There is a prevailing and unavoidable ethical dilemma affecting anyone living in a capitalist society and generally consuming ‘stuff.’ Do your consumer choices reflect your values? Do the companies making your favorite products – physical and digital – adhere to an ethical standard that makes you proud? Do the brands you patronize espouse the same integrity you strive for as an individual?
And what about your employer? Or, if you work in professional services, how about the companies you serve? Are you content serving their often cut-throat corporate interests and endorsing their actions, albeit passively?
Virtually all of the most influential companies in our lives skirt the line of acceptable behavior. Product manufacturers often exploit the environment and its natural resources; digital platforms increasingly challenge privacy standards and practices; and food and drug companies frequently engage in shoddy practices, furthering addictions and claiming unrealistic outcomes.
The driving objective of these companies is to provide value at the lowest possible cost, either financial or ethical. And as a result they’re cutting corners. Are you happy being complicit?
For many, this is a personal crisis. One that has driven people to uninstall apps, quit jobs and prop up idealists. And the cocktail of shame, guilt and helplessness is driving many to feel paralyzed.
But it doesn’t have to be that bad. There doesn’t have to be shame in living and working within the Matrix. All we are really looking for is a greater sense of meaning in our lives. Beyond general happiness and wellbeing, we want our lives to feel important and impactful, not fleeting or inconsequential. It’s not that we want meaning, it’s that we need meaning. And our products and employers are making it very, very hard.
What if our consumer choices provided that meaning? Take a tube of toothpaste for example. With this specific tube of toothpaste, ergonomics don’t allow you to squeeze from the top, forcing you to use the entire product. If each pack of this toothpaste sold in the US could teach non-wasteful habits through design, utility, formed habits and associations, the influence would be vast. We all use toothpaste: a new habit around this one product could influence hundreds of millions of people, everyday. And if hundreds of millions of people started to conserve resources and energy through something as small as a tube of toothpaste, just imagine the impact we could have on our planet if brands began to reimagine all of our daily-use products. Consumer demand is undoubtedly already there: 88% of consumers believe companies have the power to influence societal change and should be addressing issues presently facing us, while 91% of millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause.
What if we worked for organizations that made our work feel more substantial? This doesn’t mean we all must pursue careers in the third sector or with NGOs. Instead businesses could weave in a more socially responsible thread to their daily work, making altruistic actions a standard rather than a vague nod to CSR. Make it easy for employees to find purpose in their daily grind by shaping companies and and changing agendas for the better. This shift in mindset should be seen as a way to empower the individual, supercharge accountability and improve the business in doing so. The work remains the same, but it takes on a level of responsibility where we push ourselves to be more mindful of the impact of the decisions we make.
Businesses that develop new products can do so in such a way that employees are given the opportunity to find meaning in their work. There is an inherent potential in the products themselves – and further, in the mass consumption of those products. Products have the potential to instill and monitor good behaviors, while also serving as strong social signifiers. And that means, they can play a powerful role in generating substantial and far-reaching impact. Product design firms have, in many ways, shaped our culture. They have focused on making consumers more productive, more entertained, more fashionable. What about subverting this knowledge to create stuff that has a positive impact on consumer behaviors, enhancing their positive traits and triggering their ability to interact with their communities in a healthy and productive way?
It’s not altruism, it’s business. Employing the same skills we always have and the work is simply imbued with a new sense of responsibility. It’s not easy, but by focusing on three key elements real progress can be made:
Hold yourself accountable: Articulate the standards that are important to you and commit to a mechanism to hold you accountable.
Find the virtue in your work: Find a way to make work contribute to the values and causes you care about – and that doesn’t necessarily mean changing your business model or client mix.
Align purpose with profit: It’s important to ensure the health of the organization is not at risk and that being profitable truly means activating your beliefs. Consider this when you measure success and set standards every year.
The pursuit of purpose may sound grandiose but as consumers increasingly engage with the world around them and the emerging issues that pervade everyday life, the need for a more meaningful mindset will become critical. Harnessing an ethos of responsibility now will not only relieve the burden on the individual but propel your business towards a more impactful way of working.