While past decades have seen an “every man for himself” mentality as everyone scrambles to make a lucrative living, things are starting to change. There has been a distinct shift in recent years as consumers start questioning where and how products are produced and their own responsibility in enabling socially unjust or environmentally destructive organizations. This is all thanks to the rise of social responsibility.

The rise of social responsibility has not just been harnessed by a small group of individuals, but companies are starting to change their practices to reflect social, cultural and environmental ethics, while employees across different industries are taking social responsibility into their own hands. So what exactly is social responsibility, why does it matter and who does it affect?

What is Social Responsibility?

Social responsibility is something that can apply to both an individual and an organization, indicating an obligation to society and the environment to act for their benefit. It reflects a sensitivity towards social, cultural and environmental issues and in doing so aims to have a positive impact on the development of society.

Social responsibility can broadly be defined into four categories:

Environmental efforts – a reduction in your carbon footprint by either changing behavioral habitats, offsetting emissions or ethical consumer decisions.

Philanthropy – donating to charities that share your ethical beliefs in regards to individual communities or the environment and work to create a more just and equal society.

Ethical labor practices – treating employees fairly, no matter where in the world the business is operating and opting to purchase goods/services that adopt ethical labor practices.

Volunteering – participating in volunteer programs that resonate with your ethics and benefit the lives of others or the environment, without expecting any personal gains in return.

Within a business, social responsibility is an ethical framework upon which decisions are made and aims to create a balance between economic gain and the general welfare of people and the environment. The focus is to have a positive impact on bottom-line results, without taking advantage of people or the environment in doing so. It may also reduce the need for government agency intervention in businesses operations, with companies self-regulating and actively reducing their environmental footprint or social neglect, without exterior agencies needing to enforce standards.

Corporate social responsibility has been defined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development as “…the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as the local community and society at large.” It’s a relatively new approach to management, with no clear-cut boundaries, but in general is a trade-off between the maximization of profits for the beneficial impact on society and the environment. Corporate social responsibility can be exhibited in numerous different forms, whether that being giving away proceeds to charity or adopting more sustainable and environmentally friendly processing techniques.

Corporate social responsibility is intertwined with that of the individual. It depends on the idea that there is a market for products or services which take into account the welfare of people and the environment, at a price that is economically viable for the company. As people become more and more aware of the impacts of business activity, many are looking for more sustainable and ethical goods and services. Verifications such as Fair Trade products are one way that consumers can easily identify products which are ethical or adhere to their beliefs and social responsibility ideals.

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) highlights this shift in the market, saying:

“In the wake of increasing globalisation, we have become increasingly conscious not only of what we buy, but also how the goods and services we buy have been produced. Environmentally harmful production, child labor, dangerous working environments and other inhumane conditions are examples of issues being brought into the open. All companies and organisations aiming at long-term profitability and credibility are starting to realise that they must act in accordance with norms of right and wrong.”

It’s not just consumer awareness that is pushing the shift, but also the choice of many employees to work in companies that practice good ethics. Rather than a bottom line solely focused around making as much money as possible, many are looking for a triple bottom line – “people, planet and revenue”. As talented employees make their voices heard by choosing to work in ethical companies, this may be a catalyst for more businesses to change their practices inline with corporate social responsibility.

Why is it important today and for future generations?

Social responsibility is about creating a better world to live in, not only for today, but for our children and future generations. It is a shift from individualism to taking a broader perspective about what is good for the wider community and environment in the long-term. It acts on the power of individuals and businesses to make a stance on ethical issues through the market economy, and put pressure on those who are behaving unethically to change their ways or risk economic losses. While many people have good intentions, the pull of self-advancement is often stronger, which is where social responsibility falls at the wayside.

Social responsibility can be either an active process, choosing to do something or buy a product that is inline with your ethical ideals, or an inactive process, abstaining from a product or service that you know is detrimental to society or the environment. Choosing to recycle or volunteer within your community are both active forms of social responsibility, opting for a lifestyle that enhances that of others and the environment. When you have the choice of two products, select the one that is created with socially responsible values to make your voice heard within the consumer society. If each individual did this, then eventually socially irresponsible businesses would no longer be able to compete, and in a time when money talks, your actions can have a loud voice.

While many opt to give money to charity on numerous occasions, social responsibility is more of a lifestyle you choose to live throughout the year and is upheld in all the decisions you make, whether that be in the products you choose to purchase, how you operate in your workplace, or how you spend your free time. It is recognising the broader good for the community, rather than solely pursuing your own goals or economic gains. It is taking steps above and beyond your legal responsibilities as a citizen and a proactive stance towards bettering the world in which we live. Rather than dealing with problems after they occur, being socially responsible is about preventing them before they happen.

Socially-responsible Architecture

One industry that has an important social responsibility in a time of rapid development and increase in human population is architecture. The earth’s limited resources are experiencing an insatiable demand for building materials, together with the energy needs to light, heat and cool homes and businesses, with the impact on our environment reaching a critical point.

Sustainable design is one way we can severely reduce our environmental impact, while at the same time creating enough housing for a burgeoning population and its business needs. It is a way of reconnecting people with their natural environment and working in harmony, rather than competing against it. Architectural social responsibility is understanding the needs of not only the community but also their surrounding environment, which many not always be the same. Ideally, the architecture should complement its natural surrounds in the way it functions, and if possible, in appearance.

The recent shift towards “green” architecture is a positive step, with architects embracing traditional building techniques that are low-impact on the environment and combining them with modern ideas. The BigDelta printer designed by the World’s Advanced Saving Project (WASP) is a good example of architectural social responsibility, making it possible to build houses on-site in remote regions, using locally-sourced materials and at almost zero cost for communities. Not only does it address the environmental issues of building using conventional materials such as cement, but also the social restrictions of limited money to pay for building materials and their transport. It draws on ancient mud brick housing in a modern setting, using cutting-edge technology.

Another recent shift that reflects architectural social responsibility is the use of bamboo in housing construction and interiors. As one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, it is far more sustainable than timber as a building material, with a strength that has long been revered in construction across Asia. Businesses such as US-based Plyboo have harnessed these qualities in the creation of their bamboo plywood and veneer sheets, creating an alluring product that adheres to modern aesthetics. Not only has this environmental awareness and the social responsibility of their labor practices in China been recognized by the Forest Stewardship Council, but they have coupled it with urea formaldehyde-free adhesives and ocean freighting to further reduce their carbon footprint and social impact.

The rise in Earthships and tire homes in recent years illustrates how architectural social responsibility can be put into the hands of everyday citizens. Earthships can be built by those with little-to-no building experience in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. They are designed to work with the local environment, with minimal need for energy-intensive heating and cooling systems, and draw on waste products such as tires and bottles in their creation. It utilizes passive cooling systems and produces its own water resources and electricity, creating an “off-grid” home that also allows for the production of edible plants in adjacent greenhouses.

Earthships are clad using a technique known as “rammed earth”, which is itself having a resurgence in socially responsible architecture across the world. Soil is a widely available and sustainable building resource that can usually be found locally, reducing the need for energy-intensive transportation (and the costs involved). It breathes much better than concrete and has a high thermal mass, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night, which reduces the need for heating and cooling of the home.

It’s a technique that has been around for centuries and was largely overlooked when conventional building techniques using wood and concrete became the norm. But as architects look to new ways of creating sustainable and socially responsible housing, this ancient technique is providing some answers.

This is also true of grass roof houses, which were long used by Vikings to help insulate homes and are seeing a resurgence in popularity today. Not only do they help maintain a comfortable interior temperature, but they help to absorb rainwater, assist in lowering urban air temperatures and create a natural habitat for wildlife. In densely packed urban environments they can also serve as a good sound insulator while filtering artificial pollutants from the surrounding air.

Social responsibility in other professions and the individual

But social responsibility doesn’t just fall on architects and corporations. It can also be applied to scientists and engineers who are morally responsible for any negative consequences which could result from their ideas and inventions. Most are employed by companies or agencies which each have their own agendas that must be adhered to and cannot always be controlled by the individual. But socially responsible scientists and engineers conduct their work in a manner that is beneficial to not only the community, but also the environment and do not use their knowledge in a way that could cause detriment to either.

While some may be employed in government institutions that seek to improve the quality of life for its citizens, others may work in the development of military weaponry, raising ethical issues as to the destruction on life they may cause, either at home or in other areas of the world. In this sense scientists and engineers may have a greater responsibility than others, with their knowledge having the potential for wide spread impacts for both good and bad.

Having said that, the decision-making processes in government institutions and corporations may limit the individual’s ability to be morally accountable, and the unethical application of their innovations by the wider community may be outside of their control.

This is where social responsibility returns to each and every individual. We have the power to think about the choices we make when purchasing goods and services, and can send a strong message to unethical companies by refusing to support them. In this internet age, it’s getting easier and easier to uncover those that don’t follow your ethics or operate for the good of the wider community and environment, with numerous websites where you find out company or product backstories.

They say “money talks” and more than ever power lies in the hand of consumers and individuals to make the change the world needs through social responsibility.