I believe that for design to be considered truly great, it should be ethical.
What do I mean by ethical? Ethical can mean a lot of different things and will probably mean something different to everyone.
When I talk about ‘Ethical’ Design I’m talking about something which has a supply chain that is free from exploitation. Something that has been designed to limit its negative social and environmental impact.
The main areas of focus for designers are cost, quality and time. The ethics of a product are usually over-ridden by one or more of these factors (most commonly cost). The fact is that is much more cost effective for a company to get products made in developing countries where they can get away with paying employees next to nothing and have little obligation to provide any of he things such as; sick pay, maternity leave and regular breaks which are compulsory under most western working laws. Neither are they obligated to pay for overtime, meaning that when someone calls up their supplier moving up their deadline, it is people already working 70 hour weeks who have to pick up the slack.
Great Design should take into account where the materials come from. Are they ‘harvested’ in a sustainable way? Are the people employed to harvest/pick/mine it payed enough to live off? Are they treated in a way you would be comfortable being treated? Are they paid at all? (They are 45.8 million people in slavery today, and 68% of those are in trapped in forced labour). Is using this material going to harm the livelihoods of a community? Is using it going to damage the surrounding ecosystems?
It should take into account the processes involved in making the products. Again who will be making the products? Are they being provided with the appropriate safety equipment? Are they being treated fairly? Are the processes creating high levels of pollution?
The products ‘end of life’ should also be taken into account. Can it be recycled? Is it designed to be disposable or near disposable (year or under lifespan)?
The marketing of a product can also be a kind of exploitation. Are you tricking or scaring people into buying it? Are you designing it to break so people have to frequently buy a new one? Are you constantly re-releasing a product with small changes encouraging your customers to continuously buy new merchandise? Are you changing your design in a way that makes other products incompatible?
In an ideal world all of these questions would be considered in the design and manufacturing of a product. However we are not in an ideal world BUT all is not lost! The more designers, companies and manufacturers consider the ethics of their supply chains the quicker exploitation can become a thing of the past.