The Social Business

Category: Food (page 1 of 4)

Zero Waste Leeds – change begins at home

As I’ve mentioned before, over the last few months I’ve been looking into various ideas broadly around the theme of “local responses to climate change”.

The theme that we’ve made most progress on is around waste and recycling – and we hosted a meeting last week attended by 30 people interested in exploring the idea of “Zero Waste Leeds“.   I’ve just about finished writing up the notes, and I’ll share more on here soon.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that with things like this, change begins at home.  To create real change, action pretty quickly needs to expand beyond the home –  at a neighbourhood level, a city level, the country, universe and beyond…. but you can learn a lot by first of all trying to change things that you have direct control over.

I’m also a big fan of counting things, keeping track of things.  That’s where the journey towards going car-free began – making a conscious effort to record each journey over six months – and then reflecting on what we could change.

So,  given that I want 2018 to be the year when we really get stuck in to helping Leeds create less waste, I thought we’d start at home.  On January 1st we agreed (family buy-in is important!) to weigh everything that we were getting rid of – black bin waste, recycling, compostable waste, glass, and donated goods.

And the results are in….

This first table shows everything we’ve “got rid of” – including donations of stuff that’s been sat in the loft for a while. It shows a total 111kg. (click on the table to enlarge it)

Household "waste" during January, including donated goods.

Household “waste” during January, including donated goods.

This second table is without the donated goods (as this might give a better comparison for throughout the year).

This table shows a total of 65kg of household "waste" during January, excluding donated goods.

This table shows a total of 65kg of household “waste” during January, excluding donated goods.

 First of all, a few bits of explanation

And some overall thoughts

It was a really useful exercise – and got us thinking about the amount of waste that we create as a family.   When you weigh it all up, it’s striking how much rubbish you create – 2kg a day – or closer to equivalent of 4kg a day if you include all the stuff we’ve amassed over the years that we’re starting to get rid of.

And although what you might call our “household reuse & recycling rate” is perhaps not that bad – 64% excluding donated goods, 79% including them), it really focused our minds on how much “residual waste” we were creating.  That, as you’d expect, was made up of all sorts of things.  But the amount of non-recyclable plastic packaging was striking.

As was the amount of food waste.   My guess is that relatively speaking weren’t not that bad on food waste – we’re certainly much more on the ball than we were a few years ago.  But there was still too much.  Leftovers that got forgotten in the fridge.  A third of a tub of cream.  A couple of rashers of bacon from no-one could quite remember when.  That kind of thing.   It all went in the bin – and presumably will mostly be burnt at the RERF, just down the road from our office.

On a positive note, it confirmed to us the importance of home composting.  By weight, 8% (excluding donations) of the waste we produced made the journey to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden.  And having emptied some beautifully rich compost from the bin a few months ago, I need no convincing of the value of carrying on doing that.

And then there’s glass.  Talk about recycling with anyone in Leeds and it’s the first thing they’ll mention – why don’t we have kerbside glass collection?  The recent Council report into recycling confirmed how much Leeds glass doesn’t get recycled.  Our month (no Dryanuary in this house) confirmed the obvious – in weight terms at least, glass is significant.  By weight glass accounted for 11% of what we got rid of (excluding donated goods).  And I promise, we don’t drink that much…..

So there you go.  We haven’t quite decided whether we’re going to continue weighing everything (if anyone wants to join us in the experiment let me know – that might help us to maintain the motivation!) but it has been a very useful exercise.

We’ll keep thinking about it, but our main immediate reflections have been:

  • We need to keep doing what we can to buy things with less packaging (and of course, consider alternatives to buying some stuff in the first place).
  • We need to work harder on reducing the amount of food we waste at home.  We didn’t track how much of our residual waste was food waste – but I know it was too much.
  • We’d be interested in knowing how we compare, and in getting other people’s ideas and experiences.  If you’ve done this as a household – or fancy doing it this month – say hello on Twitter and follow #ZeroWasteLeeds.

 

 

Could a Latte Levy work for Leeds?

The year is only a few days old and already we’ve had at least two big news stories about waste.

The first concerns plastic – and the possible impact of China’s decision to no longer accept our plastic for re-processing.  Then today we’ve had news of a potential 25p Latte Levy – to “nudge” people into reducing their use of non-recyclable coffee cups.

Waste reduction is an issue that interests me a lot.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve had a bit of time over the last few months, courtesy of the social enterprise that I help to run, to explore “green” business ideas – things we could get involved in locally that would help in one way or another to tackle climate change.

We’ve been looking in particular around community energy, waste, and transport.  Waste and recycling is the one where we’ve made most progress – and I’ll be putting some more time into it over the next few weeks.

We’re interested to see what more could be done to help Leeds as a city create less waste,  and increase the amount of waste materials that gets recycled.

The context is that in Leeds, as elsewhere, recycling rates have stalled in recent years.

Up until recently,  year-on-year progress was impressive – with close to 44% of Leeds household waste recycled in 2013/14 – compared to 22% in 2006/07.  Yet this dropped to 38.5% in 2016/17.

This is pretty consistent with the national picture – as these Government statistics demonstrate.

I’m not sure why we’ve hit this plateau.  My guess would be that years of central Government cuts haven’t helped – and that the continued investment that’s needed to ensure that householders are able to recycle more just hasn’t happened.

On this, it’s interesting to compare what’s happened in Wales – where improvements in recycling rates are much more impressive.  So it would seem that it can be done, if there’s political will and investment.

Locally, Leeds City Council are currently working with WRAP – and are undertaking a review of their Waste and Recycling Strategy this year (see item 17 here).  So it seemed to us that it was timely to explore whether there were any ways we could help to work out how to waste less and recycle more.  I summarised some of the key points in the council report in this thread.

Our starting point has been to chat with the wide range of social enterprises that are active in Leeds on waste and recycling.  There’s loads going on already – with really impressive social enterprises such as SCRAP, Seagulls, and Revive doing loads of good work to make good use of stuff that other people are throwing away.  And, of course, Leeds is the birthplace of the Real Junk Food Project – who through projects including Fuel For School and the Sharehouse have saved tonnes of food from going to waste.

But could we do more?  That’s what we’ll be exploring at a meeting we’re hosting later this month.  We’ve invited the Council along too to chat about the review of their waste strategy  – and to find out more from them about the challenges the city faces around waste & recycling – alongside opportunities to do more.

One really positive thing in Leeds is that a lot of social enterprises already have a strong relationship with the Council – for example Revive has reuse shops at two of the Council’s household waste sites.  And it’s that kind of co-operation that has a big impact.

As today’s focus on coffee cups has illustrated, this is a really complex issue.  There are no easy solutions – and progress will probably come (if it does come) in a range of different ways.  Businesses have a role to play, as do all of us as consumers.  Local and national government will play their part too.

That’s why I think the coffee cup issue is such an interesting one.  I think it’s going to be a really tough one to solve.  As Jo from The Greedy Pig outlined in this Radio Leeds interview, (from 2hrs42min),  the issue of disposable coffee cups is a bit different to plastic bags.  It’s the “on-the-go” consumption that makes it such a difficult issue.

There will be solutions.   But I think we’re going to have to think really creatively.  There are plenty of interesting ideas in this post by Hubbub, who’ve been working a lot on the issue.  I think they’re right that there’s plenty of scope for city-level action – and I’m already talking with a couple of Leeds indie businesses who are up for working out how they can reduce the amount of packaging waste that they create.  Many independent businesses already take a lead on this (eg offering Vegware packaging) – and it’s great to see there’s an appetite for doing more.

There are other interesting ideas out there too – like Cup Club – and again, I’ve been in touch with them to see if there’s scope for trying something out in Leeds.

It’s a massive challenge, but I sense a change in public mood – thanks in no small part to David Attenborough.   There will be things we can do to increase recycling rates – but even more importantly there’ll be ways to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.  And the thing that interests me is that I think it’s in cities that we’ll be able to do the collaborative, joined-up work that will help us make progress on this issue.  Starting in Leeds of course….

Social innovation Grameen style: “Look at ice-cream. The cones are edible.”

I’ve been in Nottingham this morning for a breakfast event hosted by Capital One with Professor Muhammad Yunus, the man often described as the Godfather of Social Business.

Prof. Yunus is best known for Grameen – who in turn are best known for offering banking services to poor women in Bangladesh. He’s in the UK for a couple of days – with Friends of Grameen President Liam Black by his side – to talk with a wide range of people – including the UK Government – about social business and, more specifically, the problems the bank is currently facing thanks to the unwelcome intervention of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Prof. Yunus made it clear, with the answer to Liam’s first question at this morning’s event that he didn’t want to “waste time” talking about Grameen’s current problems. Instead he wanted to focus on social business – so that’s what I’ll do here too.

It’s easy to feel a bit starstruck in the presence of someone who has achieved as much as Muhammad Yunus. He’s an interesting mix of zen-like calm and steely determination. This isn’t an ivory-towers academic who’s dipped his toe naively into the world of business. I get the impression you wouldn’t mess with Professor Yunus. But his generosity, warmth and humility are immediately apparent too.

Liam introduced Prof. Yunus as a man who’s “best known for asking questions that turn things on their head.” This for me was the theme of the talk, and something that in my own little way I try to bring to my work too. Many of his questions, of course, concern poverty and its causes. “Poverty isn’t created by poor people. It’s externally imposed. It comes from outside.” A statement such as this challenges – and immediate invites questions. Who/what is imposing poverty? How do we respond?

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

His social business journey began in 1976, as an academic who, in his words, was “growing tired of teaching theory whilst people died outside.” He looked around in Bangladesh – and saw big problems with high-interest moneylending. So he decided to be begin lending money to the poor – the poor who most people believed (still believe?) aren’t worthy of banking services.

From those humble beginnings, Grameen now runs more than 50 social businesses – many in collaboration with multinationals – Danone, Veolia, Pfizer, Tesco and more – in a range of markets from microcredit to mobile phones to yoghurt. One of the things I find most fascinating about the Grameen approach is that none of the businesses distribute profit – yet many are run in collaboration with some of the world’s most successful profit-generating corporations.

That challenges me in a number of ways – with regards to my attitude towards who our business collaborates with – and some of my thinking about profit. Yet I’m not saying that Professor Yunus’s attitude towards taking dividends from social business (he suggests business is either selfish – profit maximising – or selfless) isn’t problematic either. But it’s a useful challenge….

He talked quite a bit about Grameen’s collaboration with Danone – a relationship I know a fair bit about having spent a couple of days with Danone at an Innovation Lab in Paris a few years ago. Together, Grameen and Danone sell high-nutrition yoghurt – with the double benefits of “health through food” (Danone’s mission) and plenty of jobs for people selling the yoghurts.

He told a story of product development. Execs arrived from Paris with sample products – in, of course, plastic pots. Cue one of Professor Yunus’s questions.

“Why is the pot plastic?”
“Because that’s what we sell yoghurt in around the world.”
“We haven’t set up a social business so that we can litter Bangladesh with plastic pots.”

They went away, and came back three months later – pleased with themselves of course – with a biodegradable, corn-starch pot. Professor Yunus looked at it, and asked another series of killer questions:

“Is it edible?” No? Why is not edible? People are paying good money for this product – why can’t we produce a pot they can eat? We eat ice-cream cones – so why not yoghurt pots?”

That’s innovation in action, right there…..

But is he – and Grameen – being used by multinationals hungry for good CSR stories and access to bottom-of-the-pyramid markets? Markets that are easily accessed by partnering with a social business with the incredible reach that Grameen has in countries like Bangladesh? Yunus responds to this question – which is asked all the time – primarily by journalists – with mock surprise. “They’re using me are they? Well, I never knew. I thought I was using them….” He’s delighted to be “used” – if being used means that a social business is developed that helps people out of poverty. But as I suggested earlier, Yunus is no naive Professor – I doubt you’d get far if your aim in collaborating with Grameen was purely selfish.

Too soon it was all over, and I had to dash to get my train to London, to catch the second half of the Empty Homes Conference and for a series of meetings to help us to develop Leeds Empties – an enterprising, collaborative approach to tackling the waste of empty homes so that more people have somewhere decent to call home. I travel down inspired by Professor Yunus’s indefatigability (to borrow a mis-used term). Fifty social businesses later, he’s still hungry for the next start-up. These final words stick with me:

“Social business is problem-solving business….. Every time I see a social problem, I set up a business to solve it.”

Inspiring stuff for all of us trying to make a difference through social business.

Shop talk

I wrote recently on the Guardian Leeds blog about our local shop closing.

It’s literally next door to our office in the centre of Leeds. We’re a few minutes away from the main shopping centre so it’s a bit of a pain to have to walk that bit further for your milk or your sandwich. And it’s just not nice to see shutters where there was once a nice little shop.

So I sounded people out about a public meeting to discuss the idea of a community owned shop. It’s all the rage – at least on the Archers – and I was keen to see if there would be interest amongst local businesses and residents.

Twenty-five people came to the meeting. We had some good discussion – helped by the fact that the landlord who owns the property came along too. Ian Adderley from Co-operatives Yorkshire and Humber came along to chat about other community owned shops, such as this one in Leeds and this bakery and grocers in Slaithwaite.

I put together a quick survey – which more than 20 people who were there have completed. You can read a summary of the survey’s findings here.

I haven’t studied them in detail yet myself – I haven’t had the time – but I just want to make a few points related to this idea in particular, and the bigger picture, which includes Big Society.

I think it’s interesting how there appear to be two main camps – one interested in a shop (ideally community owned) in the premises vacated by Simpsons – whilst another camp is interested in the broader idea of a “more interesting kind of shop”. There was talk of local suppliers, slow food, a decent bakery, that kind of thing. All made possible by a different form of ownership.

I asked people to define what they were interested in because I think it’s important, from the start, to be clear about people’s self-interest. That sounds like a dirty word, very un-Big Society. It can easily be confused with selfishness. But I think identifying self-interest is key, if people are to find time to make things happen. It’s why I wrote this post – Big Society – or People Like Us?

Whilst I think self-interest needn’t be a bad thing, I think there is a danger that the most capable people end up looking after themselves, whilst those who may need help more take time to get their act together. (If you want confirmation of this, just check out the answers to Question 4 for the list of skills and resources from our bunch of city-livers/workers in the survey).

There may be two sets of self-interest here – one in a local shop in those premises – and another in a shop, somewhere in Leeds, that does things differently. They might overlap, but they may not.

So, here are the survey results. Primarily, I’d be interested in the responses of the people who were at the meeting, or who are interested in this idea – just leave a comment below. But I’d also be keen to hear from other people – with your thoughts on any issues this raises, and what you think we should do next.

Stick to your knitting? Or take on a Scarf Shop franchise?

I’ve had a bit of a moan on Twitter this morning about some poor service we recently received from a third sector organisation. We booked a room for an event – and to cut a long story short they offered friendly but poor service. We did most of the running round to confirm the booking details, and then on the day they gave the projector we’d hired to someone else. Then, to round things off, they didn’t put enough postage on the invoice, so we ended up paying £1.14 for the privilege of collecting our invoice from the sorting office!

I’m interested in understanding the root causes of the poor service we received. I think there’s an issue about diversification and the need to generate income. I imagine the organisation in question started off years ago as a community development organisation, renting a room in a tatty corner of a council building in the neighbourhood where they grew up. And along came European millions to enable them to build a multi-purpose venue, which housed the work that they do and also gave them the opportunity to rent rooms to other people.

There’s no problem with that necessarily. And you can’t really argue that much with organisations which look to diversify in order to bring in various sources of income. But what if you don’t have the skills to compete in your new marketplace? Venue hire is a massively competitive market, and customers are very demanding.  To compete, you need to be good at what you do.

There’s a good argument to say that you should stick to your knitting. It’s tough though, particularly at the moment as funding streams dry up. It can be tempting to come up with bright ideas which will supposedly generate “free” money to keep you going.

The one that I’ve been asked to help with most is the community cafe which wants to expand into outside catering. The argument goes: “We can charge £5 per head for the kind of stuff we sell in the cafe for £1.50.”  True – to an extent. But it’s a whole different market – with different customers and competitors. That’s not to say that you can’t make it work. But it’s not necessarily the case that a community cafe can sustain itself through a Robin Hood strategy of selling paninis to office wallahs whilst offering cheese baps to the urban poor.

So what do I do about this? I work with people to help them to assess their ideas. Nothing particularly clever, and no scientific formulae to help us to understand whether a particular idea offers a chance to generate income. But we start by considering:

  1. Does this idea involve selling more of our existing services to existing customers?
  2. Does it involve selling existing services to new customers?
  3. Does it involve selling new services to existing customers?
  4. Does it involve selling new services to new customers?

The theory there is that there’s likely to be greater risk in developing a new service, and selling it to a customer group that you know nothing about. It may also require more resources in terms of time and money. That’s not to say not to do it – but grouping ideas like this at least gets people talking about risk – and their ability to take on new business ideas.

It’s hard to work out whether your idea is likely to generate income.  And unfortunately, the more outlandish the idea, the harder it can be to argue against it.  You can be accused of lacking vision.  But with money so tight, we have to try to find ways to help people choose the right way forward, instead of digging a deeper hole.

The thirteenth step could well prove the toughest

I had an interesting day in Derbyshire on Saturday at an event run by the East Midlands School for Social Entrepreneurs and members of the Transition movement.

I was there to make the case for good marketing. My basic argument is that many of us who think that the world – and business – need to be run differently are pretty sceptical (or even hostile) towards marketing. We also think that it can only be done by big brands with loads of cash, who push unwanted products onto an unsuspecting public. My argument is that it doesn’t have to be like that – and that proper marketing – building relationships with people – can come naturally to social businesses if they just think it through.

The premise of the day was to explore whether a next step for some Transition initiatives could be to set up social enterprises. Let me be clear from the start, I have the kind of knowledge of Transition that you get from reading about it in magazine articles – so I don’t pretend to be an expert. But it does seem to make sense that, after following the twelve steps of Transition, some communities may go on to set up social businesses to help to build a different type of economy.

I’ve written a fair bit in the past about what I see as the differences between social activists and social entrepreneurs. I’d say that the majority of people who were there on Saturday were activists – and I’d guess that that’s pretty typical of the Transition movement.

I’m not saying that activism is not important. It’s vital, and there’s clearly some inspiring stuff happening in Transition initiatives around the country. It’s an idea which has clearly captured people’s imagination. But I would argue that making the next step – if that is to be settting up social enterprises – requires a different mindset.

I’m not suggesting that you need to be some kind of socially enterprising Del-Boy, or have an MBA, to set up a social enterprise. Far from it. But making changes to your own lifestyle – and teaming up with others to do the same – is quite different to setting up businesses which need to sustain themselves through the money they make.

I look at my own background for evidence of this. I never thought I’d get involved in business – not even social business – because I thought business was for fat-cat capitalists. I couldn’t understand how anyone who wanted to change the world could also find motivation in making money. Even if that money was ultimately used to do more good.

I was hostile towards business. There was a lot of that hostility – understandably – in Belper on Saturday. But to run a social enterprise I think you have to accept that things aren’t so black and white. That sometimes you have to compromise, or be pragmatic, or take decisions which might not sit totally comfortably with your value base. You might have to do deals with other businesses which traditionally you’ve seen as the enemy. This might mean you fall out with those who believe in the simple rights and wrongs of capitalism.

On a practical level it also involves different skills. And I believe that these skills can be learnt, but it takes time. This is a point relevant to the whole debate about Big Society. Phillip Blond wrote a letter to the Observer on Sunday expressing how he is puzzled by the hostility of people like me towards Big Society. (By the way, I’d be grateful if anyone can point me to the evidence for Blond’s assertion that volunteering has doubled in the last few months.)

One reason I’m sceptical is that I believe that it will take time for communities to develop the skills and build up the experience to run lots of services themselves. I do believe that, in the long term, it’s the right direction to be travelling in. But I have done this work for long enough to know that the road to better services is littered with painful, expensive examples of initiatives which haven’t worked. Because, sometimes, people got it wrong, because they were still learning how to run things themselves. And, I would suggest, the people who need better services most are the ones who may take a bit longer to get organised and get things right. Blond and Cameron will suggest I’m being patronising. I think I’m being realistic.

It may be that the Transition entrepreneurs were busy doing other things on Saturday – like traveling to the course on how to set up your own community supported bakery, run by the inspiring Handmade Bakery in the Transition hotspot of Slaithwaite. Either way, I think it’s worth us reflecting on the differences between what it takes to form a movement for change, and to run a business, so that we can continue to do the former, whilst also doing more of the latter.

Grow it – and they might not come

It's always interesting to confront people with their worst nightmare early on a Saturday morning.  

I ran a marketing workshop on Saturday on behalf of the Soil Association, for a group of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects.  I'm a big fan of the CSA approach – the main idea being that local people share some of the risk with the grower by paying up front, in return for a regular share of the harvest over that year.  I was a member of a CSA at Swillington Farm – and they've also recently set up a CSA arrangement (to rear a pig) with Salvo's –  a local Italian restaurant which you may recently have seen on Gordon Ramsey's F Word.  There are plenty more businesses which have adopted the model – including a Community Supported Bakery which I wrote about here.

The marketing workshop was themed around the title – Grow it – and they might not come.  This in turn was inspired by the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams – in which rookie farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice which tells him to build a baseball pitch in his field.  The voice tells him "If you build it, he will come" – and sure enough the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other Chicago White Sox players turn up to play on his field.

As you can imagine people thought Ray was nuts.  People who want to set up CSAs sometimes meet with a similar response.  Getting people to pay up front to buy veg from you – when all that currently exists is a sketch of your planting plan and a seed catalogue – can be a challenge.  That's where an effective marketing plan can help.

A do-able marketing plan for your CSA

View more presentations from robg.

I talk about marketing as building relationships with customers.  This concept sits well with CSAs.  You need to build relationships if people are to trust that you will grow food for them.  I take people through my step-by-step plan – which requires you to think carefully about your business – and in particular your customers – but doesn't require you to have any formal marketing background.  

During the workshop we split into groups and each group creates a plan – using an innovation which, even if I say so myself, I'm very proud of – upcycled wallpaper – used in place of flipchart paper.  £2 spent in Oxfam has to be better than £10 spent in Staples, surely?

Upcycled Wallpaper Flipchart
 

Aside from the eco-benefits (which won me early greenie points with my organic audience), I'm a big believer in thinking sideways along a page, rather than down a page.  There is something about a portrait flipchart which makes you anxious – you get to the bottom of a page and you start losing the will to live – because the stuff at the bottom feels weighed down by what's gone before (and you're now kneeling on the floor, writing like a four year old).  You're also wondering whether to squeeze a few more words on – or start a new page.   Whereas, with a roll of Upcycled Wallpaper  Flipchart TM you can keep on writing – and keep referring back, drawing lines where there are connections, etc etc.

The risk I take with this workshop is that I spend very little time talking about the things that some people expect me to talk about.  Some people want clear guidance – a top ten of the best ways to market your business – that kind of thing.  I don't believe in that stuff.  As my Iced Tea slide suggests, what works in one place doesn't necessarily work in another.  That's why I talk people through what they need to think about – so that they can then make their best judgement about what it's best to do.  That way, you also start thinking about ways to market your business which don't cost a great deal of money.

My four year old son was a bit confused on Saturday morning, given that I was going to work.  He asked me what I was doing.  I told him I was running a workshop.  

"Is it like Santa's workshop?"  he asked.   

"Son", I said, "Today I will give people a gift greater than any that Santa could give.  A do-able marketing plan."  He looked at me a bit confused, and carried on eating his breakfast.    

I have flour, yeast and water (but no salt). I will survive.

I've just seen the following at my local Tesco:

Empty shelves where there was once bread at Tesco in Bramley

I defy you not to panic just a little bit when faced with bare shelves in a supermarket.  

It reminded me to blog about a programme I heard on the radio the other day.  The Food Programme focused on bread, and featured a number of small-scale bakers.  I found it really inspiring.  They talked to:

  • The Handmade Bakery – a Community Supported Bakery in Slaithwaite, where people buy bread weekly on a subscription basis – similar to the Community Supported Agriculture scheme I've blogged about at Swillington.
  • A guy who knocked on his neighbours' doors and asked them if he could bake bread for them.  He now has a nice little business.
  • A woman who is using small-scale breadmaking as a way to encourage young people to develop a few entrepreneurial skills.

It's easy to dismiss this kind of thing as self-obsessed middle-class food snobbery, and in some cases I'm sure it is just that.  But there is something quite profound in the desire of increasing numbers of people to take more control of where their food comes from.  It's got something to do with the empty shelves above, or perhaps more importantly, whose shelves they are. 

Who does fairtrade work for most?

I really need fairtrade to work.  There are times that it feels like I need it more than coffee farmers or tea plantation workers.

I know that sounds ridiculous, and it clearly is ridiculous.  But my point is that a belief in what fairtrade means forms an important part of my vision of the world, and my daily struggle to try to make sense of an obscenely unjust society.

I do what I can to make things better, bit by bit, day by day.  I do that by working with social entrepreneurs.  By writing about social business.  And by drinking fairtrade tea, and eating fairtrade chocolate.  Every little helps, I tell myself.

And I more or less handed over my life to fairtrade for seven years, working at a fairtrade shop in Leeds.  That's where I learnt most of what I know about social business.   We went from small basement premises to the high street, doubling our turnover and introducing loads of people in Leeds to fairtrade.  But eventually, we closed, unable to make the sums add up.  

Every year we hosted a fairtrade producer during Fairtrade Fortnight – cocoa farmers from Ghana and Belize, tea plantation workers from Tanzania.  The questions changed as the fairtrade sector expanded.  In the early days the question was "Should I buy my Cafedirect from the supermarket or from Trade for Change?"  In later years the question became "Should I buy Traidcraft's [fairtrade product of choice] or the [Pick Your Own Big Multinational's] equivalent product?  The debate would develop, and would inevitably focus on whether we should spend our money with the big multinational, and whether they should have the Fairtrade Mark in the first place.

Generally, the producers were pretty bemused by these arguments.  Their message was consistent and clear – just sell more of our stuff.  If a big multinational was to approach them with an offer to buy tonnes more of their cocoa on fairtrade terms, then there will only be one answer.  And it's an answer that we'd no doubt give ourselves if we were in the same position.

Lots of people aren't happy about the Fairtrade Foundation's decision to award Nestle the Fairtrade Mark for Kit Kats (the four finger ones, and only in the UK and Ireland).  Lots of the concern centres on Nestle as a business –  and understandably so – they're probably the most boycotted business in the world.  You can read an excellent argument against the decision here.

I'll be honest, I don't like Nestle.  Nor am I a natural supporter of big multinational companies.  But I don't believe that monday was a black day for fairtrade, as Joe puts it in the piece I've linked to above.  I think the Fairtrade Foundation have done the right thing.  As uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I think it's progress if Nestle start buying fairtrade cocoa and sugar for four finger Kit Kats.  Only time will tell whether this turns out to be the beginning or the end of their commitment to fairtrade cocoa.  I accept that their history with their Partners Blend coffee suggests that we shouldn't hold our breath.

But fundamentally I believe that one of the great successes of the fairtrade movement is that it has engaged big businesses, helping some of them, some of the time, to trade in a a more just way.  And I think it gives us opportunities to point out just how ridiculous it is that companies like Nestle continue to buy the majority of their cocoa on non-fairtrade terms.  So for me it's progress, uncomfortable progress, but definitely progress.  

TEST POST: Every farmer needs good neighbours

It was great to see Gip from Salvo’s winning on the F Word last night in their neighbourhood restaurants competition.

I went to Salvo’s a few weeks ago for their zero food miles menu. They had a special menu for three days in their salumeria, with all the produce grown and reared in Leeds. We really enjoyed it – and at £19.50 for a six course menu it was great value too.

I’d gone along because I know the people who run Swillington Organic Farm – and they’d provided much of the produce for the menu. I went back again last Friday to interview Gip about how it went. I took my flip camcorder but unfortunately I didn’t get him in shot – he moved when we started talking and, still being a bit new to this stuff, I didn’t realise – so you can only see half his head. So I’ll just have to tell you what he said instead.

Basically he was really pleased with how it went – and customers loved it – they were sold out each night. He’s keen to do more – with the next step being to buy a pig on a Community Supported Agriculture basis – where you pay up front to share a bit of the risk with the farmer. You can imagine that there’ll be plenty of scope for publicising this arrangement with Salvo’s customers, which is great for the farm.

I’m really keen on this kind of thing – where local businesses get together and work with each other. I wrote a while back about how I was feeling a bit unenthusiastic about a lot of the funded local food projects that I’d heard about at a conference. They were great – but so many of them relied on funding – which won’t be around for ever. If you can get businesses trading locally with each other because it makes sense – and because it fits with who they are – in this case a neighbourhood restaurant – then that’s got a much better chance of being sustainable and making a big difference long term.

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