News / Opinion

Making money and staying ethical: Idealistic dream or achievable ambition?

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Pali Palavathanan is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Templo, a branding and digital agency that specialises in creativity for change. Templo works with ambitious clients from large corporates and government bodies to charities and start-ups. Current clients include the United Nations, Amnesty International, Global Witness and Plymouth College of Art.

The National Portrait Gallery’s decision to refuse a donation from the Sackler Trust late last week – a move that seems to have inspired other institutions, including both the Tate and the Guggenheim, to also turn down funding from the family – was described by The Guardian as “a landmark victory in the battle over the ethics of arts funding”.

It’s also something of a watershed moment for an industry that desperately needs both funding and a benchmark for ethical boundaries regarding how income is generated.

It’s a complicated dynamic that we are sadly all too familiar with. Last July we found ourselves caught in the middle of the Design Museum’s Hope to Nope exhibition controversy, when 30 artists requested that their work be removed in opposition to a private on-site dinner hosted on behalf of Italian aerospace company Leonardo.

This dinner, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, was an adjunct to the Farnborough International Airshow, an annual event where some of the planet’s “largest arms companies meet military delegations from around the world”.

Templo was under pressure from contributors and campaigning groups to be part of the protest and was asked to consider removing our work from the space. We were, of course, mortified to hear about the dinner, given that our United Nations project in the exhibition documented the 2014 Gaza War, specifically focusing on the use of artillery in the conflict.

However, we were more interested in creating an open dialogue and seeing how the museum responded going forward. We wanted meaningful change and were under no illusion that removing our work would create a funding policy change at the museum. And now other institutions are under the same pressure; the British Museum has recently been called to end their sponsorship deal with BP, and the relationship between the Science Museum and oil giant Shell has similarly been called into question.

So what can we do in the design industry? We also clearly have a responsibility to be diligent about who is paying our bills.

The Creativity For Change ethos – essentially, we work on the basis that design shouldn’t just look good, it should do good as well – that touches everything we do at Templo means that we share a philosophy with our clients. Standard practice dictates that we do the due diligence on everything that comes into the studio, and this means that (much to the occasional frustration of our accountant) we reject potential projects because they don’t stack up ethically.

Just recently an interesting property developer dropped a lucrative proposal on our desk. The most surface-level digging into the ins and outs of that organisation revealed that they were, in fact, often found funnelling their finances through an off-shore tax haven. Which, by the way, was a direct conflict with the Anonymous Companies campaign we worked on for Global Witness, an NGO that investigates the economic networks behind conflict, corruption and environmental abuse.

And so it was a no from us.

The thing is, not every design studio is set up the way we are. With that in mind, here are a few of the ideas that we think can bring about meaningful change in an industry that needs to really closely examine where their money is coming from and where it’s going.

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Templo: Brit-ish (Via Templo)

1. Power in numbers

Just like recycling, we’ve all got to do our bit because, honestly, small acts of defiance add up to mass impact. Change won’t come about if there’s just a handful of outlier agencies making a stand. At the moment it feels like there is an industry-wide ‘“but what can I do?” mentality driven by very valid real-world business needs, like paying the overheads. But starting with something no matter how small can mean all the difference. This could be anything from calling out prospective clients who exploit the design industry by demanding free creative pitches to refusing to work with companies based in countries with questionable human rights records.

The size of an agency can also play a part. Scaling up is often the beginning of moral trade-offs. We are consciously small, forcing ourselves to grow slowly and organically to prevent us from compromising on our philosophy. It means we’re agile and able to take clients like UK charity Survivor of Torture and to generate self-initiated projects that we really believe in. Examples of the latter include Brit-ish, our exploration of what it means to be identified as British and how to express our cultural diversity, and #ArrestTheGeneral, a campaign which called for the arrest of a Sri Lankan General alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the country’s civil war.

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Templo: #ArrestTheGeneral

2. Don’t be absolute

I can see the benefit in taking money from “unethical” companies and redirecting the profits to more socially minded work – think of it like being Robin Hood with a keen interest in creativity. This could have been seen as a way to “offset” the work commissioned by less ethical clients and commit a portion of the profits from those projects to bringing about positive change. However, this would need to be clearly evidenced as consumers and talent are more socially aware than ever and demand transparency.

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Templo: Stop Torture (Via Templo)

3. Accept the flaws

All organisations are imperfect and we must accept that totally ethical companies are rare. As we’ve seen, even the big charities get embroiled in controversy; just think back to the sex scandal that unfurled in Haiti when allegations of impropriety amongst Oxfam staff emerged in 2018, or Save the Children’s somewhat bizarre decision to bestow a 2015 “Global Legacy” award upon Tony Blair.

The National Portrait Gallery’s decision to refuse a Sackler donation is admirable, but not quite enough for some, as there are still calls for them to end its 30-year sponsorship deal with BP for its annual portrait awards. Shouldn’t we, though, cut them some slack?

Remember that proper change takes time and once you’ve set an intention, you have to make sure you stick with it. There’s a big difference between a vanity CSR project, where an agency is paid to care about an issue for three months, to a personal crusade where a studio will run through walls to make things happen.

At Templo we are trying push design into new territories to be part of the conversation and properly affect change from the inside of organisations out. Our #StopTorture campaign is one of our most successful examples of this. The campaign for The International Truth and Justice Project provided a basis for advocacy and lobbying to be carried out at the United Nations in both Geneva and New York and persuaded United Nation countries to vote for an international, independent inquiry into human rights violations in Sri Lanka. As a result of the campaign William Hague stopped deporting victims of torture back to Sri Lanka. Having a bilingual branding system helped to connect with two distinct audiences and provided both communities with the opportunity to read the campaign in their own language.

And even if you are able to make your client base 100-per-cent ethical, it is impossible to be totally purist in our world. Our phones, devices that we can theoretically use for social good, for example, are built from tantalum, tungsten and tin, which are often mined in conflict areas, linked to the financing of armed groups and built in dangerous working conditions.

So we as an industry shouldn’t demand total purity, but we should unite and be a part of the solution. It is our responsibility to educate our clients, many of whom are focused solely on the bottom line, about ethical boundaries. They have no choice but to be more responsive to the expectations of the next generation, who are more driven by social impact. So just as the National Portrait Gallery has done, let’s draw our own lines in the sand and start moving forward as an industry.