(Un)ethical design: “Nobody will argue with data”

Hamish Kilburn, Editor, Hotel Designs, gets tangled in a web of lies and misinformation when exploring the human cost of unethical manufacturing, driven largely by the demand for cheap products…

A close friend of mine recently posted on his social media the quote: ‘Nobody will argue with the data’. As with many motivational quotes I see pop up on the newsfeed, I liked it before scrolling down and moving on with my day. And then, following a roundtable I hosted this month that shocked me to my core, the sentence started to have more meaning.

The topic that myself, a handful of designers and lighting experts were exploring on the panel was ‘unethical lighting solutions’. The conversation, which for the record was (and continues to be) much broader than sustainability, was born during a purposeful introduction to Chris Stimson, the Founder of lighting brand Well-Lit, who made it his mission a few years ago to expose factories abroad that are sheltering abhorrent ethical standards.  

While learning more about his investigative experience, which led to three arrests by the Chinese government, I started to understand how we have gotten ourselves into this mess. Sadly, as briefs become more specific, deadlines become tighter and budgets have to work harder. Therefore, the demand for cheap specification in this fast-turn-around society takes precedent. As a result, this is one area of the interior design arena that will unfortunately continue to fall into what will soon become disrepair if we don’t take drastic action. Thousands of miles away from the comfort of design studios in the western world, human beings are the victims of what I can only describe as modern slavery.

Ø  While you’re here, why not read that exclusive roundtable, with industry leaders, on unethical lighting solutions?

To all brands, internationally, that are currently using marketing tools to amplify ethical, feel-good messages: I urge you to consider thoroughly which factories you decide to partner with. Ask difficult questions. Become a nuisance. Demand the data to back up the grand statements you will undoubtedly receive when hearing about care of and working conditions for the factory workers. This is the only way to separate quality craftsmanship from cheap labour. Even then, with the best will in the world and by asking all the right questions, brands can be lied to and fed misinformation.  

I believe designers should be responsible for challenging manufacturers and brands – and if they have access, then also the manufacturing process behind products. Together, which is a key theme for HIX Event, we can demand a better standard, globally, and hopefully make an impact.

However, even with the best will in the world, suppliers and designers alike will get so far before they find a black hole of information, especially when tracing raw materials. Unfortunately, without hard regulations in place, this will always be the case – but it seems we can, as an industry, be doing more to identify quality craftsmanship. This is why it is so important for brands to know what happens under the roofs of the factories that are producing their products – the more information you can gather in this area, the better equipped you will be to help create an ethical design landscape that doesn’t sacrifice the welfare of people over price (and quality).

It’s a difficult yet important road to travel for the greater good of design and humanity, but it is not all doom and gloom. I am pleased to see that brands are, it seems, working hard to amplify craftsmanship and authentic design. In the roundtable, I learned that Ennismore is only interested in working with brands that can prove their products have been made ethically. Perhaps, I hope, the tight-knit design team at the London-based studio can set the tone for others to follow.

Over to you…

You can meet Hotel Designs at HIX 2021, alongside a host of companies with a sustainable agenda, including alt collective, Laufen, GROHE, Panaz and field grey. Register for your free pass now.