The Ethical Impact of Your Creative Business

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Personal, Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I saw that one of the designers I follow on Dribbble has published a beautiful new animal illustration. I read the description, and my heart sank: the illustration was for hunting rifle packaging.

I wasn’t the only person who reacted that way. A few of us, including the original author, had a civilized discussion on how we select the projects we want to contribute to. This wasn’t a case of the artist being fully in support to the cause (which is legit), but they simply haven’t given it much thought at all.

I think this is such an essential topic to talk about, especially in the light of the many social issues coming into focus over the past year, that I wanted to dedicate a whole post to that.

Strap in, this might be a bumpy ride.

And please remember that each time I say “you”, I mean myself. I’m not preaching off of some high horse. We’re in this together. (If you want to be in this, that is. Your choice.)

The Ethical Impact of Your Creative Business

It’s never “just business”

I wrote a blog post titled Why you can’t separate “business” and “personal” – Introduction to Core Values. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do so before continuing, as what I’m about to say will make more sense.

Some people are able to disassociate themselves from their work to such a degree that they’re able to do literally anything for money, and not feel guilty or ashamed. I don’t place any moral judgement on their choices, but I don’t hold this ability in very high regard. In my work and my writing I don’t advocate for disassociation—to the contrary, I support emotional integration.

In a business sense, emotional integration means paying attention to how we really feel when we work on a certain type of project, or with a certain type of client, and allow any discomfort to surface. If we feel an intense resistance toward a project, and this resistance isn’t just procrastination or fear of failure but something persistent, it might mean this project is not in alignment with our core values. The same is true for our branding, and for our marketing tactics: if it doesn’t feel right, it might mean it’s not a good practice to follow.

Unfortunately, most people in our society have no idea how they really feel. On the smallest sign of discomfort, we start stuffing our faces with substances that sedate us (nicotine, caffeine, sugar, alcohol, THC…) or drown our discomfort in work or entertainment.

Feeling the feelings is a brave and radical act. It might lead us to realizing that a lot, if not most of our life has been a lie. It’s not a pleasant realization for sure, but it’s necessary in order to live an integrated, wholesome life.

Feeling the feelings might reveal where we’ve been dropping the ball in our business: where we have an opportunity to make a difference in the world, but we’re not doing it.

If we want to consider ourselves “good people”, it’s not enough to just not do obvious harm. We need to set our bar higher, and actively do better.

Vote with your time

“Voting with your money” is a way of demonstrating your values though your purchases. Choosing to buy from family-owned, local, eco-friendly, ethical businesses instead of predatory corporations is a small, but important way of making a positive impact. Even better, recommending those businesses to your network might just save them from going bust, since they’re most sensitive to pressures and changes in the marketplace.

As a business owner or an independent artist, you have another way of making an impact: choosing carefully who you sell or give your time to.

In superhero stories and fairytales, we’re constantly reminded how supernatural people need to make a choice every day: to use their powers for the greater good, or for selfish reasons. Those who use their powers for good are the heroes of our stories. Those that only seek personal gain are painted as evil super-villains:

Luke Skywalker versus Emperor Palpatine.
Gandalf versus Saruman.
Granny Weatherwax versus Lily.

Each of us has skills and talents we use to make a living and get ahead in the world. They may not be supernatural, but they can make a difference—if we want them to. This is our opportunity to make a positive impact.

Every day, we get to vote with our time: will we use our skills and talents for the greater good, or only to gain money and fame?

If we’re in it only for the money, any project that earns us enough will seem attractive—but if we want more out of our projects, we need to become more selective.

Here’s a question you can ask yourself to check if a project is worthy of your time:

If I had all my needs met and didn’t need the money, would I agree to work pro bono on this project?

Suddenly when the money variable is taken out of the equation, different concerns come to the surface:

  • Will I enjoy this project?
  • Do I get along well with this client?
  • Will this project allow me to grow as a person and a professional?
  • Will this project make a positive impact in the world?
  • Will I be proud of having worked on this project?
  • Would I like to be known as a person who does these kinds of projects?
  • Am I willing to go above and beyond to make this project a success because I really support what the client is doing?

The promise of money and fame can sometimes blind us to these crucial questions we should be asking.

Are your values for sale?

If you’re making compromises and accepting projects that you donʼt enjoy, aren’t particularly proud of and don’t believe in, you’re selling out your values.

Do you want to be the kind of professional whose values are available for sale to the highest bidder? Or is your integrity so important to you that you’re willing to walk away from projects that clash with your values, no matter the pay?

This is a decision each professional and artist makes for themselves. Sometimes this is hard, especially if we really need the money to make ends meet. If youʼre not in a position right now to say no to any clients, I understand, and I donʼt suggest that you sacrifice your basic needs.

Here’s what I’d like you to think about. Perhaps, instead of chasing a six figure income, or a beachside house, or a 4-hour workweek, or whatever outside markers of success you think you need to work towards, you could work on being able to buy your integrity.

Having the ability to say no to anything you don’t want to do is beautiful. And it’s expensive—but I believe it’s worth it.

As a business owner or an independent artist, you can make a positive impact by choosing carefully who you sell or give your time to.

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Figuring out your personal line in the sand

If you’re just getting started with your business, forming your ethical principles might take a while. Sometimes you might end up doing projects that you only realize in retrospect were not a good fit.

About a decade ago when I was a fresh freelancer, I did some web design work for certain political parties. (In fact, I did blog designs for all major Croatian political parties during a big 2007 campaign, so at least everyone got equal treatment?) Today, I wouldn’t work with a political party whose policies and practices I don’t support 100%.

I would never work with an organization that campaigns to limit human rights, and this includes most religious organizations. The beliefs are not the issue—I really don’t care what or who anyone chooses to believe in to find meaning in this chaotic world. I just don’t want to support their business, because I don’t agree with the impact it’s having on people.

I wouldn’t work for the fossil fuel industry, weapon manufacturers, textile companies that rely on labor practices that border on slavery, or cosmetic companies that test their products on animals. These are just a few examples off the top of my head, but it’s not an exhaustive list. I think carefully about each individual project as the opportunity shows up.

We as artists, designers, writers, musicians, inventors, engineers, developers, teachers, consultants, and other creators can choose not to be complicit in things that we ethically oppose.

You’re allowed to uphold your values in your personal and your business life. You’re allowed to say no to any project you don’t feel comfortable working on, or to any people you don’t feel comfortable working with.

Recently a hair salon owner’s post, where they denied future service to a former client who published a racist post on Facebook, made a splash:

This is a very firm line in the sand: we don’t serve racists. I applaud to them for being so clear and open about it. More and more small business owners are stepping up and doing the same.

I don’t think there’s one right way to do this, and I don’t mind if other artists and designers do the sort of jobs I wouldn’t want to do. Each of us makes an individual decision that lets us sleep better at night and proudly stand behind our work. But here’s the caveat: so do other people.

When offering custom commissioned services, performing these services may sometimes interfere with the professional’s personal values. Custom services are not just a transaction. The business owner is investing significant time and energy in the project, and is getting into a relationship with their clients. They have a right to decline entering any relationships they don’t want to, as do the clients.

All we have is our own time and our own money to vote with. We better put it to good use.

Letʼs all take a deep breath (or three), as I adjust my SJW hat. I want to talk about the current state of the world, and how we’re responding, or failing to respond to it.

It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to say and how, and I’m not going to do it perfectly. I’m experiencing a lot of strong and raw emotions about these topics and processing them is a full-time job in itself. I might be able to pull my thoughts together much more coherently in a year or two, but I don’t want to wait that long. It’s far too late already.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that in the past year I’ve been sharing business-related articles far less than I share social justice articles, and that a lot of my retweets are stories by marginalized people sharing their experiences of living in a culture that oppresses them. I guess that many of my followers don’t like that. There’s enough drama in the news, right? Why get more of that through social media? I understand. I want to run away from the media and the pain of the world, too. Sometimes I do, and it’s the best thing I can do for my mental health.

But I still want to share things I believe are important. Our voices will impact our future. I worry that in twenty years time, people will look back to this moment and say: “I wish more people said something. I wish more people did something. Maybe then, we’d have a chance to make it right.” It’s not like this has never happened before in the human history, right?

Now is not the right time to sit on the fence.

No matter what continent you live on, imperialist European nations left scars on its native people and the environment. We still witness the consequences of that horrible past. This is the time to reiterate once again what each of us believes in, and what we want to bring into the world.

If we want to see more good, we need to do more good. Sometimes, doing good means calling out bullshit when we see it.

This is the time to rock the boat, because it’s a shitty boat anyway. It’s full of holes, burning and sinking, and the rats are long gone.

If you’re tempted to remain complacent about current issues because it’s “not your problem”, I challenge you to ask yourself “How am I benefiting from the injustice?”

This is a hard question to ask, and even harder to answer honestly. Your first response might be “I’m not benefiting in any way”. Let this question remain with you for a few days and see if your response changes in the presence of those less privileged.

We often forget that much of European and North American fortune was stolen from technologically less advanced people, and the price paid for it was genocide. Mark Silver of Heart of Business asks a very good question to consider the consequences of our collective imperialist past:

“It’s easy to live a life of abundance and material ease if you steal land and then force people at gunpoint to work for you.

The value of the stolen wealth goes into the trillions of dollars. Where would the US be, where would Europe be, if all the stolen goods and labor had to be given back?

So especially when someone is promoting ways to build a business in this economy, if they aren’t acknowledging this fact, if they aren’t standing up against the injustice that has fed them, that deserves to be named and known among the people who care.

It’s humbling. It’s devastating to realize this.

So when someone doesn’t want to get political in the realm of business, that’s just ignorance. They are already political, sitting on a pile of skulls, as are we all.”

White people in many developed countries still profit from the goods and labor that were stolen from people of color hundreds of years ago.

White people in developed countries still profit from the labor of low wage workers in Asian factories. They work in horrible conditions for meager pay so we could have cheap products, because having access to new clothes and phones for every season is our right, but advocating for labor rights is “communist”.

To admit that we benefit from injustice is to accept that part of our heritage is wrong. That’s a painful realization, but this pain cannot even be measured against the pain of those who have been oppressed for generations.

We, “nice people” tell ourselves we’re not racist, sexist or prejudiced and that our work in becoming more enlightened and “woke” is done. Or we see ourselves as a member of a marginalized minority and think that this puts us in the same boat as other marginalized minorities. We don’t like to see ourselves, the “nice people” siding with the oppressors—but if we keep ourselves out of the uncomfortable conversation, that’s exactly what we’re doing. To keep our voice down is to give the oppressors legitimacy.

To give our money and time to people and organizations who openly trample our core values is directly funding the oppressors.

Instead, let’s fund people and organizations that do good, both with our time and money. Let’s consider every project we work on not just for its financial impact, but for its social and ecological impact as well.

Earth is drowning in toxic waste that pollutes our ground and water. There are islands of plastic trash floating in the oceans. The rising temperature and sea level impacts both us, and the animals losing their habitats. The pollinating insects are rapidly dying out. Our governments are doing next to nothing to prevent that. Scientific research that attempts to find the ways to save the environment is not a priority for funding, so progress in this area is slower than it could be.

Just writing all this is causing pain in my chest. How can I, a small insignificant person, stop bad things from happening? I can’t possibly change all that.

And thankfully, I realize, I don’t have to change it all. You don’t have to change it all. We can focus on just one thing—one cause to support with our skills and talents, and that is enough. If more of us chose one good thing, it would be enough.

One good thing. That’s all I ask of you.

Each of us is contributing to the destruction of the planet just by living in an industrialized society in a “normal” way. (Even just by being alive and reproducing, because Earth is already overpopulated.) Yes, even the “nice people” who recycle, buy organic vegetables, and boycott Zara. Our very way of life is toxic. If we’re not actively working to change something, we’re not doing our part to keep our heads above water. If we’re not actively doing our part in preventing the damage, we’re responsible for making it.

This is as much a reminder to myself, one that I’ll need to read repeatedly—because not all parts of me are on board. There are parts of me that say it’s too hard, that it doesn’t matter because it won’t make any difference, and it’s too late anyway. There’s a part of me that says someone else will figure it out.

That’s faulty thinking. I can’t expect of others what I don’t expect of myself. So instead, I’ll start expecting more of myself. Just one good thing.

We are being called to use our creative superpowers for good.

I can’t tell you what that looks like. But if we are to survive this social and ecological crisis, we have to do something, because there are no other superheroes to save us. The few people who care about what Earth will look like even after they’re gone, who want to leave the world a better place than they’ve found it… That’s literally all we have.

All the presidents, prime ministers and parliaments in the world won’t pull us out of this. Nor will Elon Musk, Google, or a benevolent AI.

Each of us needs to put in the work.

When you get annoyed at your friends who are repeatedly posting about our society’s issues, remember this: they are all we have—the people who care. They’re the folks who feel the gravity, and who consciously choose not to ignore the alarm bells. They’re the people who won’t sit quietly and side with the oppressor. Be thankful that they’re willing to stick their necks out even when you’re not, and endure the avalanche of verbal abuse and threats that comes with writing on a controversial topic.

You don’t have to be like them. If sharing depressing news and heartbreaking stories is not your cup of tea, fine. Do what feels empowering to you.

  • Make impactful art.
  • Volunteer.
  • Donate money to people and organizations whose work you support.
  • Use your platform to promote worthy causes.
  • Teach those who do good, so that they can do even better.
  • Lend a hand to a marginalized person and see what they can achieve when they’re treated fairly.

I’ve expanded on this list a lot more in my video and article Creatives have a responsibility towards social justice so if you’re looking for concrete suggestions, go read or watch it.

You don’t have to be a walking megaphone to help your community and the planet. There are so many ways we can make a difference, all of them valid. I trust that you’ll figure out your own unique way that feels enjoyable and meaningful. But I think we can all agree that we need to do something, and that the time is ripe.

Refusing to use our creative superpowers to bring more suffering into the world may be a good start.

Refusing to sell out our values, not because someone else will think we’re a good person, but because that feeling of saying “no” to maintain your integrity is fucking priceless.

Peace & love,

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

4 responses to “The Ethical Impact of Your Creative Business”

  1. I was very moved by this topic. once I started reading I could not stop until it was finished. You have shared valid and relevant information that needs to be out there. A lot of us don’t think outside the box of getting our next pay but we definitely should. And I for one who if on the poor side will definitely be doing more. Even if something small, as you said, it will make a difference. This was a very well written thought out piece of writing.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Sheree! It means a lot to me, especially since I was a bit on the edge about how this piece would be accepted.

    Small is wonderful. You never know how something seemingly small will affect someone, and what it might lead to.

  3. You have many good points. Lots of food for thought, especially the idea of stolen riches from others. It’s really uncomfortable to think about it like this. I have been pulled into more environment and social awareness thanks to my friends, and also Greta Thunberg did her part. There are now many people who care about supporting local businesses, buying local food that didn’t have to be imported from far away, recycling or even better reusing things, especially clothes and plastic things or going straight zero/low waste, composting… There are so many eco friendly and fair trade alternatives for many products now. People care, they ask about the origin of things. Also talking to young, passionate people is great, many are aware of it and want to do something. Everybody can do something. Doing at least a little bit is better than nothing. We can’t change the whole world, but at least to improve our area is already a lot.
    I want to start planting trees because it makes the most sense to me, though it’s a long run project. My favourite book is The Man Who Planted Trees. Also I think if everyone grew at least some food for themselves, the world would be a lot better place. I started a veggie patch and it’s my pride and joy :). It also inspires my friends.
    We already have enough of everything on the planet, we sure don’t need more products. We need to be smarter how to handle them. Even to take pride in reusing items because it feels cool, like MacGyver. :)

  4. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Hana :)
    Indeed, there are many more people now than there used to be 10-20 years ago, but there needs to be **a lot** more of us if we are to make a real impact. I hope this happens before it’s too late.

    I haven’t read “The Man Who Planted Trees” yet, I’ll check out if they have it at the library :)
    In Croatia, tree planting initiatives are usually started by elementary and high-school kids. I often hear about those in the media, and last summer there was a crowdfunding campaign by one school to get more tree seedlings to plant. If you need more hands to help you out, I’m sure you’ll be able to find them at a local school :)

    Great work on your veggie patch!

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