Social responsibility

Today, almost every larger company attempts to create a “social image”. Money is donated to whatever cause has the best advertising effect, to what sounds good and hopefully eliminates some misery from the world. But if we examine this more closely, the question of the actual value of such a commitment is never quite so clear in most cases. There are three fundamental questions that should be asked. The first is whether the donation actually achieves what the money is given for. Then there is the basic question as to whether money is indeed a suitable means for passing on goodwill, compassion or love, or whether the internal dynamic of money, generally speaking, tends to prevent the service reaching the people in need. The third question is then naturally whether charity as such is actually the sensible option in the current situation or whether there are better ways to translate the company’s awareness of its responsibility and commitment into action.
For upmarket watch brands, integration of the brand into a structure of sponsorship activity assumes a particularly large role. All major brands spend enormous amounts on advertising, part of which flows into a certain “good cause”. It is said that it takes an annual advertising budget of at least 20 million dollars to keep a prestige brand in the market. Clearly, in most cases, only a very small part of such a budget actually reaches the places the brand uses to promote itself. Advertising vehicles such as the media, etc., generally devour the largest part of the money spent. However, ultimately the question remains as to whether anything positive can actually be achieved with such sponsorship.
Since Niveau élevé is not just any normal company, but always tries to look beneath the surface, we ask ourselves whether sponsorship is meaningful or pointless for advertising purposes. At any rate, Niveau élevé will not participate in the general war of attrition of promotional activities in the watch industry. There is no question of that. However, Niveau élevé will hopefully make money from its watches and intends to reuse this money as meaningfully as possible. We assume that it is not just Niveau élevé that is no normal brand; the people who wear our watches or jewellery are also people who enjoy questioning things and love to know more than is usual. For this reason we share our thoughts about sponsorship and the implementation of our higher-level goals with those who are interested in our brand.
Niveau élevé will certainly not spend any money on billboard advertising at airports or take out whole-page features in fashion magazines. Generating a need which does not actually exist, “fabricating” an artificially maintained “atmosphere” that actually has no substance, but rather is a suggestion and thus an illusion – this contradicts our basic philosophy. Either the basic conceptual and stylistic concept of the brand will find its “niche” in the psychological structure of a sufficient number of enthusiasts, or Niveau élevé will stylishly and without lots of noise remain a brand for insiders only and will make watches and jewellery in the atélier style for a very small circle of aficionados. Nevertheless, Niveau élevé will always be part of a group of companies and projects that will work towards specific goals and in its alignment will look for the alternative and not simply work to maximise profits or increase the share price. If the Niveau élevé products bring in profit, this will be used in the context of the projects that the group of companies carries out around Niveau élevé.
Now we reach the actual subject of this chapter: the social commitment associated with the Niveau élevé brand, our experience in this respect to date and our concept to achieve or promote something that is dear to our hearts.
The Niveau élevé brand ultimately emerged from two companies which form the core of an entire group of companies all connected to one another in terms of ownership. The first is the diamond polishing works, Aditi Diamonds Pvt. Ltd., and the other is Gold-in-Glass Pvt. Ltd. From the commercial viewpoint, these two companies represent by far the smallest part of the group today. But with their knowledge, skills and the possibilities that they create, they are at the very centre of the group. In addition to the companies in Switzerland and on the Antwerp Diamond Bourse, the group has other companies such as a philosophy publishing house in St. Petersburg, Russia and companies operating in the alternative energy sector.
Right from the start, the basic philosophy and motivation of our work has never been about money or commercial success. There is a saying from an Indian philosopher which has become the core message that accompanies all our work: “A life without purpose is a miserable life. But when you define the purpose of your life, make sure that you set it as high as possible. Because the quality of your life depends on the quality of your purpose.” Of course, it is always satisfying to be commercially successful. But to devote our whole lives to this and to slave away every day to ultimately end up somewhere in the middle of the field of millions of companies that are just as successful, was never sufficiently interesting to us. It is much more interesting to try things that no one has ever before attempted or achieved or to subject all our work to an ethical code that does not even have money as its highest goal.
In the course of this we have tried out lots of things – in the social, technical and aesthetic fields, in relation to the environment and philosophically. This is not to say that everything we have tried has worked. That is far from the case! But the inner fulfilment of a work and a life on the margins of the Known and in the world of abstract values and ideas has always appeared disproportionately more valuable to us than monetary success. Thus we look back on a long series of experiences and experiments which – successful or not – represent a wealth of adventures and knowledge. They not only outline our own inner (or conscious) landscapes; they are thus also the basis for our goals and work.
It was probably our experiments in the social field that achieved the least visible success. On the one hand it is perhaps particularly difficult to implement social concepts across cultures. On the other hand, perhaps the success or failure of social commitment cannot be measured in the short-term and has to be viewed in a more long-term context. Indeed, it was our social work in India, particularly in association with our diamond polishing works, that made us very sceptical about the result of our attempt to translate a western appreciation of values into an Asian culture.
Most of our attempts to do something in the social field took place in the early 1980s. At this time, the cultural climate in southern India was very different to how it is today. The cultural contrast between West and East was much starker back then.
Some of our workers in the Pondicherry polishing works came from the surrounding villages, and they often brought the concerns of their small communities to us. In 1982, for example, a proposal was brought to us from the village of Kottakarai, some 10 km to the north of Pondicherry. They were attempting to set up a small library that would loan books to the villagers free of charge. A building had already been set up for it. The only thing missing was the books and they were now looking for a sponsor. We happily made the money available and some 2000 books were bought in Madras (now Chennai), most of which were written in Tamil, the local language. But as soon as the books reached Kottakarai, the drama began. Two groups formed in the village and argued about who should wrap the books in plastic and run the library. While the dispute remained unresolved, the project was unable to go ahead and finally one of the two parties went to court, demanding to be allowed to manage the company. The court directed that no one was allowed to enter the library until it has come to a decision. However, the library building was simply a big hut, built with granite posts between which clay walls rose up to wooden roof timbers, capped with a sort of thatched roof. In this type of building, a daily watch needs to be kept for termites, otherwise the inevitable will happen. Some 6 weeks later, the termites had not only eaten all the books, but they had devoured the roof timbers as well. The building then collapsed and nothing remained of the project other than an ongoing legal dispute between two hostile groups of villagers.
We were also approached by the youth organisation from the village of Edayanchavadi, again slightly to the north of Pondicherry. This time we were asked for help with reinforcing the village pond. At that time (in the early 80s), there were no individual toilets or running water in a village like Edayanchavadi. People washed their laundry in the village pond. Some of them also bathed there and drew water for all possible purposes. Every morning, the women fetched drinking water and water for cooking from a hand pump in the village square. The village pond therefore had a very important function for the village’s families. The problem with this was that, in South India, 85% of the annual rainfall occurred in the monsoon period from late October to early December. The village pond needed to fill during this period and then hold as much water as possible until the start of the next monsoon. A heavy monsoon, however, caused the pond to overflow. This generally meant that the dyke around the pond softened and then broke at the location of the overflow. The pond thus drained, and one year left the village without enough water.
The proposal from the youth organisation was that we should provide materials for creating a controlled overflow. The young people of the village would do the work and granite rocks and concrete would be used behind the dyke to reinforce the pond, roughly 30 cm below the usual crest of the dyke. In the event of a heavy monsoon, this would allow the excess water to run away without breaking the dyke.
No sooner said than done. We provided a truck full of granite paving blocks, two loads of gravel and enough sand and cement to do the job. On the first day, there were some 30 to 40 young people on site. They started work with much enthusiasm. On the second day there were just 3 people. On the third, no one turned up at all. When we asked what was up, they answered that they wanted to be paid for the work they had done. But that wasn’t our agreement, and we refused to pay the young villagers. The consequence was that no one turned up again to finish the project. So we employed two watchmen to look after the materials and ensure that nothing was stolen. And we waited. Nothing happened. After a month, we enquired what the young villagers were thinking of doing about finishing the work. The demands were astronomical. They wanted around three times the daily wage of a skilled bricklayer. We refused. Since nothing then happened once again, and we didn’t want the materials we had provided to go to waste, we hired a team of bricklayers from the neighbouring village to build the overflow. But the inhabitants of Edayanchavadi threatened the bricklayers from the neighbouring village; they said they would kill them if they came to work in Edayanchavadi. So that plan failed. To salvage what we could from this mess, after waiting for a long time, we finally agreed to pay three times the wage of a normal bricklayer for the untrained young people. In the end, the controlled overflow was “built” after a fashion, just before the monsoon started. However, this was the last of a number of projects in which we financed initiatives from villages.
Another project, in which we said that we were prepared to construct two sets of women’s toilets for the village of Bommayapalayam on the coast to the North of Pondicherry, failed due to the resistance of a few inhabitants from the same village. And then there was the project in which we attempted to replace a village’s hand-pumped well with a well with an electric pump and a water tank. Again the final outcome was not very satisfactory.
There was one project, however, in the village environment that could be described as a success. We set up an evening school for children who had to work all day in order to help feed their families. At that time, there were many “landless famers” in the villages. These were families who had one or two cows and a few goats or sheep, but did not possess any land of their own. This meant that one or two children from the family had to drive the animals along the roadsides so that they could find something green to eat here and there. Or they would quickly drive them into a field when the farmer wasn’t looking or into a private garden. However they managed, the children had the job of bringing all the animals back home at night, as full as possible. The skinny cows then gave one or two litres of milk and the goats were sold every now and again. This was an important supplement to the family’s income, but it generally meant that one or two children were unable to go to school. At that time, school attendance was generally compulsory and there was a ban on child labour, but these laws could not really be enforced due to the dire financial straits of the country’s population. The situation is different today; India has achieved massive progress in this respect.
Our school project gave children from two villages who had to work all day the opportunity to go to school for a couple of hours in the evening to learn to read and write; not only in Tamil (the local language), but in English as well. This offer was very well received and, since we provided both the building and the teachers, there were no administrative problems. The difference between this and the other projects was that everything was under our own control and not dependent on the cooperation of local groups.
Other organisations which attempted to provide generous help with donated money had very similar experiences. In the early 1980s, there was a construction project on the northern outskirts of Pondicherry in which some 50 small houses were built for homeless families in Pondicherry. The settlement was intended for rickshaw drivers without a roof over their heads and whose families lived on a blanket on the street. The rickshaw and muscle power of the father represented the only income for these families. According to then German Consul-General, Mr Merten, the settlement was built largely with money from the “Brot für die Welt” organisation. Unfortunately the project was not accepted at all. Nobody ever moved into the houses. Either the rickshaw drivers preferred to live on the streets in Pondicherry, where they drew water from the closest hydrant and were close to their workplace – the street. Or there was some kind of local political dispute that prevented the settlement from ever being inhabited. Whatever the reason, the houses stood empty for years until they fell down and the old bricks were stolen at night. Eventually, every trace of the houses that were freshly-built just a few years previously had disappeared and thorn bushes once more proliferated on the former settlement.
It was not only outside our companies that we encountered problems in the social commitment area, however. For a long time, not everything ran inside our own production workshops in the way we had imagined. Towards the end of the 80s and to the mid-90s, we employed up to 300 diamond polishers of both sexes at Aditi Diamonds. Right from the start, we refused to discriminate between female and male employees; our only criterion for employing new applicants was that their work met our very high standard. We wanted applicants to have completed at least 10 years at school before we trained them to be specialists. This meant that our employees were all people with a relatively high educational level.
It soon emerged that the women were the more focussed workers. In addition to the basic salary (which was good in itself), we also paid a relatively high allowance per polished diamond, so once the female workers had gained enough experience, they sometimes earned more than their male colleagues as they produced the larger quantity of diamonds. The first time a woman in the company found more in her pay packet than the men, the men unanimously went on strike and refused to accept their salary. We ignored this, and eventually the workers had to swallow the situation and forget their grievance. The situation flared up again, however, when we promoted one of the best female workers to junior supervisor. This caused a previously unknown situation in our company. A young woman was supervising and instructing her male colleagues and was responsible for the work of around 10 men and women. This not only triggered a strike in the factory, but anonymous letters were sent to the management, threatening murder and any number of other things. Here again we simply continued stubbornly to implement our western ideas of equality of the sexes and remained unmoved. At some point, the workers had to swallow this bitter pill as well, and production resumed smoothly with both women and men as supervisors.
What we hadn’t considered, however, was the social structure of the individual families. Slowly we started to wonder why our girls and women were getting older and were not marrying at the rate that would have been expected. In India, at that time, marrying off a daughter represented a considerable financial burden for a family. First, the woman’s family had to pay the man’s family a “dhauri”. This was a considerable sum of money, comparable to the dowry in European countries. But converted into the financial situation of families in India, this dowry was disproportionately difficult to afford. The daughters also married out of the family and moved their home to the man’s extended family. They were thus lost to their parental extended family as a source of income. This, combined with a daughter’s super income, the family had very little motivation to give them in marriage. However, in India, children were unable to marry themselves – they had to be given in marriage by their parents. The resulting phenomenon was that we had a number of female workers with unusually high salaries, but this did not pave their way to a bright future. Rather their lives stagnated as they were no longer married off by their families.
The situation in India today is not the same as it was back then. The young people are more self-confident and women have much greater equality than they did in the 1980s and 1990s. But, to clearly summarise what we have learned from all our endeavours in the social sphere, a cross-cultural commitment that is based on western values and western thinking is condemned to fail in a totally different culture in almost every case. In a differently structured society, it is not possible to implement something in the way we imagine, even with the best will in the world, one’s own moral or ethical values and with money.
One very stark example of this conclusion is an incident which occurred in our polishing works in 1984. Pondicherry was the only French colony on Indian soil, so it had a number of catholic churches and schools run by monks. The schools are highly regarded and are above-average. One day, a father came to us and asked us to train “Hugo”, a 14 or 15 year-old protégé of his, in diamond polishing. Hugo had a hard past history. He had been sold by his family as a bonded labourer, i.e. a child slave, and had been bought out of slavery at some point by the French monastery in Pondicherry. He was supposedly an orphan or at least no relationship could still be found with his actual parents. The problem of bonded labour, i.e. the sale of children into a work relationship in which the child leaves its family and then “belongs” to an employer, has almost totally disappeared in this form from India; or at least it does not exist to the same extent and so openly as in the early 1980s. In those days, child labour was very widespread in India and extended, in particular, to agriculture, the food service industry and to some factories. For example, children were better workers than adults in the match manufacturing and firework industries. Children, with their good eyesight and nimble fingers, achieved better production rates than adults for inserting matches into the holes in templates in order to apply the phosphorus head to the sticks.
We therefore willingly accepted Hugo into our polishing works, which was still quite small, and were pleased to have an initially very well-motivated new apprentice. But it soon emerged that the young man’s psychological situation made it impossible for him to fit into a team. In those days, our polishers started work very early, which meant that they also finished very early. They received breakfast and lunch in our canteen at the factory. This consisted of hot milk and biscuits at half past seven in the morning, followed later by a normal Indian midday meal. However, Hugo’s psychological constellation was so broken that, at every breakfast, he would have a screaming fit if he felt that someone had a tiny drop more milk in their cup. There were other areas in which he was entirely unable to fit into the social structure within the factory so, in the end, we were forced to tell the father that we had to terminate the apprenticeship.
Our experience with Hugo and our meetings with the French Jesuits gave us a good understanding of the situation with bonded labour in India at that time. If we then consider the actions of the French monastery in more detail and look behind what initially appeared to be an exemplary show of good will by the fathers, we discover a shocking mechanism. At the prices at that time in India, a midday meal in a restaurant cost 2 or 3 rupees. The average salary of a worker was 800 to 1000 rupees. Selling a child into slavery brought in perhaps 5000 rupees. The monastery paid around 20,000 rupees for every child it bought back out of slavery. Thus, a businessman who worked with children in bonded labour received almost four times what he had paid for each child from the French fathers. That would allow him to buy four new children. Ultimately French donations were boosting an already flourishing trade in human beings. Freeing children from slavery is hugely effective at bringing in charitable donations. A lot of money is donated and some children are actually bought back out of bonded labour with this money. But this in no way resulted in an improvement in this situation. In contrast, it further stimulated the trade in people. If Christian organisations are paying four times the market price for child slaves, they will never stem the tide of this inhumane trafficking.
Thankfully the general economic situation in India improved significantly and the work of the authorities has largely put an end to the phenomenon of bonded labour. But returning to our discussion about social commitment, we need to see clearly that the readiness of European Christians to make sacrifices had precisely the opposite effect to the one intended.
Very few of all the attempts by western charitable associations in India to help have been successful. In conclusion, however, we should mention one positive example. There was then an organisation called “Worth Trust”. It still exists today. This organisation, which was founded by the Swede Dr. Paul Brand, opened its first workshops in South India in 1963. In those days, the organisation started to give training to people disabled by leprosy to enable them to have their own livelihood. The Worth Trust’s workshops later offered training to people with all types of disability. The principle of giving disabled people a training using lots of technical know-how and excellent precision machinery was an outright success. There were high-precision Swiss Schaublin lathes and milling machines installed in the production facilities at that time, and we had our diamond discs turned on these machines at the Worth Trust. The work done there was far, far better than the other options available in India. They produced high-precision pins for carburettors for the Indian motor industry, carried out precision orders for medium-sized businesses and produced every part imaginable that India’s then mechanical engineering industry was unable to supply. The workshops had full order books; they not only covered their outgoings, but even made profits. After 3 years of training, the disabled mechanics, such as young people with just one arm, were in such demand as precision machinists in industry that there was only one trainee for every 10 job offers. We tried to employ graduates from the Worth Trust ourselves, but without success.  For the disabled people, the training often rescued them from a life of poverty and shame. For industry, the highly-motivated mechanics with their above-average training were a blessing, and the fact that the operations even made a profit made it possible to set up more and more workshops.
Based on our own experience, the balance of our discussion about the efficiency of donations and whether they are meaningful, does not look so positive. If we add in commercial fundraising, the picture becomes even murkier. Fundraising means that someone, or an organisation, collects donations for another organisation in a professional way. Imagine an organisation, XYZ, which carries out some activity that is worthy of support. Then a fundraising company approaches organisation XYZ, offering to purchase for € 100,000 the right to collect donations for XYZ by means of special issue stamps. For organisation XYZ this will mean additional income amounting to € 100,000 plus increased recognition due to the special issue stamps that are sold. The professional fundraising organisation thus pays € 100,000 to XYZ and starts selling special issue stamps to raise money for XYZ’s causes. Printing the special issue stamps, organising the sales, etc. will probably cost the fundraising company around € 100,000. Thus the company has costs of € 200,000. If the process is unsuccessful and only brings in € 150,000, then the fundraising company will lose € 50,000. However, the fundraiser will generally bring in more like € 500,000. So it is not unusual for the company to have a profit margin of 60%. So far, so good. But what does this mean for the donors? A donor who buys a special issue stamp for € 1 thinks that this euro will actually benefit the good cause of XYZ. But that is far from the mark. Of this € 1, only 1/5 – thus 0.20 euro – actually reaches organisation XYZ. And even of this 0.20 euro, only a part will actually end up being used for the specified cause. This is because organisation XYZ also has its own expenses, internal administration, etc. If we are incredibly lucky, then perhaps 10% will reach the people actually in need and, even then, there is no guarantee that the money will truly have a positive effect there in the long term.
We are sceptical about the vast “charity” industry”, all the charity events, appeals for donations, etc. The actual leverage effect of the money used is generally so small that this type of social commitment is out of the question for us and for the Niveau élevé brand.
The Niveau élevé brand therefore makes no donations to charitable organisations where the subsequent use of the monies is outside our direct control and influence. For this reason we prefer to support projects that are carried out within the framework of our group of companies. In particular we have three large-scale projects; these are described in the following chapters.
Naturally, a certain fundamental ethical attitude is part of our corporate philosophy and we intend this attitude to find expression at all points of contact with employees, business associates and authorities. There is no point in relentlessly maximising our profit and then beneficently distributing it again. In any case, the goals that our brand has set itself do not lie within the usual outline of a monetary structure. It is less a matter of having commercial success so that we can then direct the profits to good causes, but rather we would like to do things that follow guidelines that differ from the usual. The three big projects that Niveau élevé supports are the construction of a fully autonomous, sustainable energy system for a closed micro-society with around 50,000 inhabitants, a model system for a seawater desalination plant operated with green energy, entirely without chemicals and with minimal environmental pollution, and the critical examination of our money-based social system combined with promotion of alternatives to the current globally-practised economic system.
The extent to which the Niveau élevé brand will be able to support these projects, which are described in the following chapters, remains to be seen. Our focus, however, is on the philosophical background of the brand’s products. In fact, we are aiming to manifest a specific attitude, an insight, a more intentional approach to ourselves and our environment. A commitment for the three cited large-scale projects is a valuable part and a necessary consequence of the whole. The actual goal, however, lies just as much within the personal sphere of each individual, as in the higher-level social projects.