Social Guilt Bracelets

February 13, 2017 • 

Tech is well-intended but not explicitly moral.” I grimaced as I wrote this sentence down during a talk by Evan Sharp, co-founder of Pinterest, last Friday. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Coincidentally, so have quite a few other people at source.[1]


I have been paying more attention to the social issues which bred the presidential results and the aftermath. Although I find all of it disturbing, I find what’s happening in Utah[2] particularly distressing. This is not the world I grew up in.

In college, I was enrolled in a course called “Design for Social Good.” Our semester long assignment was to develop a branding and marketing campaign for Toronto’s local police division, TAVIS.

The Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) is an intensive, violence reduction and community mobilization strategy intended to reduce crime and increase safety in our neighbourhoods.

The “winners” of the assignment, chosen by the Toronto Police Service, would have their work used for years to come. Unfortunately the outcome of the project suffered from the course’s design itself and we were set up for failure. I allowed my disillusionment to colour my dramatic self and phoned in the project. I have since been rather confused about ethics in design.

I have spent the last few years dedicated to changing how commerce works, mostly on the internet, but it feels like the world is no better for my career. It’s been a decade. I acknowledge that career fulfillment comes and goes but it’s becoming hard to piece apart what’s a phase and what isn’t.

Last week I spent some time in a store called, “Me to We.” The retail shop is run by a charity called “WE Charity” and is an add-on, or fundraising opportunity, for the charity itself. I picked a bracelet off the wall and while looking at the price I turned to the sales associate and asked, “This bracelet is $100?”

She nodded and told me that this line was inspired by a woman named Mama Toti. Mama Toti joined the Artisan beading group the charity helped set up in Kenya. She told me she met Mama Toti. She told me it costs $50 to buy a goat and the other $50 went towards the materials and paying the women who make them a fair wage. She told me that Mama Toti’s dream was fulfilled when she bought two goats with her first paycheque. She told me Mama Toti’s now able to sustain herself with her own income. I bought the bracelet.

When Evan took the stage on Friday he was originally going to talk about lego, but changed his mind two hours before and decided to talk about social impact instead. For better or for worse, what the new president has done is bring politics front and center.

Evan talked about how Designers now, more than ever, have the power to make change at an unprecedented level. I agreed with that. He talked about how our career’s core purpose is that we design things out of empathy for human use. I agreed with that. He talked to us about how you cannot design a nuclear warhead but you can engineer one. Engineering is for human progress. Design is for human suitability.[3] I agreed with that. He challenged us to think about our actions in that frame.

As a consumer, I’ve tried to purchase deliberately. I gravitate towards principled businesses like Patagonia, Toms Shoes, and Pura Vida. I prefer direct-to-artisan relationships for most of my purchases. I even have a home I’ve furnished with pieces made out of reclaimed wood from my city’s old building remains. I’ve been asking myself for the better part of a year if it’s enough and lately that disillusioned girl from college has been getting louder.

On my arm sits Mama Toti’s bracelet. I don’t know if wearing it matters or signifies anything. But I don’t know that it doesn’t either.


↩︎ [1] Source is a daylong summit ↗︎ for design leaders run by Designer Fund

↩︎ [2] Check out what Patagonia has been doing to protect natural monuments in Utah ↗︎

↩︎ [3] He used a better word for this but I missed what word he used in my notes... sorry Evan

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