In my last post, I discussed how design-thinking can be applied to address the rampant problem of e-waste. Sustainability Certifications are helping to move industries in the right direction by encouraging manufacturers to design products to be easily dismantled for recycling and material reclamation, and by encouraging retailers to implement product take-back programs to redirect consumer e-waste from the landfill back to those manufacturers.

These same ideas can also be applied to other industrial and corporate systems to drive improved worker safety and reduced social risk.

Design for Socially-Responsible Manufacturing
In addition to an array of environmental considerations, the smartphone Sustainability Certification evaluates parameters that support socially-responsible manufacturing. Social compliance includes environmental, health and safety (EHS) programs, reduction in hazardous materials in manufacturing operations, and ensuring worker health and safety throughout the supply chain. These compliance areas can take a costly hit to a firm’s bottom line when things go awry. Think Apple’s Foxxconn debacle, which impacted the company’s image. More recent examples (though not smartphone manufacturers) are the garment factory building collapse in Bangladesh or the explosion at the West Fertilizer¬†plant in Texas. If production systems are not designed for social responsibility, it is bad for workers and the communities, bad for the company, and bad for the environment.

However, a sustainability certification alone cannot guarantee that a product reflects socially-responsible design. The Samsung Galaxy S4 was certified as Sustainable by TCO, but just a few weeks later claims surfaced about abysmal working conditions at Samsung factories and documented cancer clusters at the company. TCO is investigating and the results have not yet been released, but this episode highlights the complexity of the global electronics supply chain.The point of good design, however, is that when it is properly followed it should scale  with the organization. This will not happen organically Рit must be reinforced with policies, training, and ongoing stakeholder engagement for continuous improvement. But if the foundation is built on social responsibility at the core, it will be much more difficult for the organization to devolve.

Social compliance (and CSR in general) is not usually considered a design problem. But it is. If systems and operational processes are designed for sustainability, the risks of exposure to liability from non-compliance (and risks to the environment, workers, and communities) are all minimized. By designing in processes for stakeholder engagement and sustainability governance that drive accountability, systems can be redesigned to transform the organization towards sustainability. It will move corporations from a reactive compliance-driven stance into an industry-leading position that can attract and retain top talent, reduce exposure to risk, and capture innovative ideas from key stakeholders.