The famous, free market extolling, economist Milton Friedman once wrote that “…the only entities who can have responsibilities are individuals … A business cannot have responsibilities.” Friedman believed that the responsibility of the individual, and the laws that governed individuals, was enough to provide a guiding light; the ethics by which corporations (via the individuals who worked for them) could do good.


He was wrong in the 70’s and 80’s, in the era of Gordon Gekko and that fault is doubly evident now. We have gone through enough banking crises and endless corporate scandals (VW providing the flavour of this month), to know that individuals are guided by the culture provided by the organisations they work for. A lack of ethical structure + great wealth/power doesn’t usually end well.


Which is where business and professional ethics comes into play. Corporate social/environmental responsibility documents form an integral part of many organisations now – and those organisations, from the public sector to the private sector, are better for them. Organisations with a positive ethical stance (randomly I just checked Shell, DHL and Cardiff University for their examples) written into their charters are rightly proud of themselves. They provide social, corporate, sustainability and environmental guidance, frequently setting targets, that allow the public to judge them by their own words and their employers to work within clearly delineated areas. It’s not perfect, but offers a vast improvement on what went before.



Cardiff University ensures high ethical standards


This is all to the good, and we think our society (not least our planet) benefits from stated organisational ethics, but what about the visual communication of those ethics? If they are such an integral part of an organisation’s brand, how is that branding to be successfully communicated?


There is more to it than simply using recycled stock for your print collateral (although that is an obvious starting point). Brands trying to communicate their ethical stance visually need their appearance to reflect this stance. organisations need to match the promise behind their branding with what they actually deliver.


Good intentions aren’t enough. They need to be expressed and communicated. Ways of brands achieving this include:


  • Making sure the aims and objectives of any brief include their ethical stance.


  • Ensuring their partners and suppliers (including their design agency) have a similar approach. All organisations can choose who they work with, and this choice is itself a reflection of the values behind the brand. Most organisations self-select their supplier/partner/client list in some way. Sometimes this is purely on financial terms, but more often than not this now also includes basic ethical considerations. We are all, to some extent, judged by the company we keep.


  • Fostering transparency in design. If your organisation is proud of it’s operational policies, it should make sure they are communicated. Not all brands will be keen to let the consumer know what is real and true – the ethical brand can be. Ethical organisations don’t need to be ‘perfect’ anymore, just genuine, and as a result ethical branding can reflect a more human, even a more vulnerable side.


  • Looking at the lifecycle of any product/brief and ensuring that it has a sustainable outcome. In Green Graphic Design, Brian Dougherty suggests that designers start at the end of the process instead of the beginning and that they think of everything: from the time of its ultimate disposal to its conception including transportation, warehousing, production, and manufacturing that may prevent green solutions from being implemented.


There isn’t a one size fits all approach to ethical brand design, but organisations who are not driven purely by the bottom line have an opportunity to both do good and to be seen to do good. We, as a society, are increasingly making decisions based on more than price, and brands who feel the same way should make sure that the rest of the world knows about it.


By Oliver Brown