Share one, get one free

The idea of crowd purchasing is nothing new – you buy in bulk and share the gains. But it has all been given new momentum by new technology and, unfortunately, our new austerity.

Eight million people now buy collectively across the UK in a kind of share one, get one free model (SOGOF?) and internationally, the author and innovator Rachel Botsman has charted the rise and rise of what she calls collaborative consumption.

Much of this is informal. Some has been commercialised into dead end, venture capital funded enterprises like Groupon. The real breakthrough will come when we see collaborative models that combine community and scale.

To support these new forms of co-operative enterprise, we have just launched a £60,000 challenge prize together with the backing of the energetic new Business Minister Norman Lamb.

To give guidance to applicants there are three challenges. They are:

– Challenge One: A project aimed at creating a platform, tool or vehicle to help individuals to come together and form a community buying group.
– Challenge Two: A project aimed at enabling existing or new community groups to develop their purchasing power by working collectively.
– Challenge Three: A project aimed at businesses to empower their employees or consumers to group for community buying.

The ‘Buy Better Together Challenge’ £60,000 pot will go towards training and mentoring for stand out projects and includes £15,000 for the overall winner.

Please help spread the word – applications are easy and can be completed here. You can also join the conversation on Twitter by using #communitybuy

Self help or mutual aid?

The world is full of self-help books and rather empty of books on how to help others.

Richard Sennett, one of the most reflective of modern sociologists, has tried to fill in some of this gap, by looking at what he calls the craft of co-operation – listening, being responsive, being able to act together. His new book “Together; the rituals, pleasures and politics of co-operation” is a tour de force.

Sennett, like a Dutch master, paints not just the overall picture, that you have to stand back to see, but the angle of the light on every object and the detail in the corner that calls you forward.

The big picture, as I read it, is the pattern of instincts that explain why and the ingenuity that shapes how we co-operate. Co-operation, he sets out at the start, is an exchange in which the participants benefit from the encounter. To be co-operative is a natural enough default, but as he concludes in his last sentence of all “as social animals, we are capable of co-operating more deeply than the existing social order envisions.”

The detail in the picture flows effortlessly, with points of analysis on the nature and craft of co-operation, across time and culture.

He looks at the nineteenth century and how in the labour movement, the call for collective bargaining, seeking strength in numbers, was “intended to establish a common thread between people who did very different kinds of industrial and craft labour.” When Jane Addams, the pioneer of urban community centres, opened a settlement in on the Near West Side of Chicago, she designed it to create space for informal activity and exchange – a space to be convivial.

Social rituals help to make a habit of co-operation and help to frame how we then behave. He reminds us that “when we shake hands, I’d wager, none of us recall that this greeting was invented by the Greeks to show that the hands hold no weapons.”

Like Karl Polanyi, and others since, he argues that, while economic life in more modern times still draws deeply from the wells of social co-operation, it puts less back. Social relations, at work and elsewhere, became embittered.

An example is inequality, designed, we are told to incentivise economic success but something that also corrodes it. He cites – nicely for me – my work with Agnes Nairn as part of a section looking at how inequality undermines co-operation among children and young people.

In a work setting, having touched on the ideals of co-operative enterprise, he analyses the mismatch between the language of teamwork in modern businesses and the reality. He cites Gideon Kunda, who argues that the approach by managers to encouraging teamwork creates a form of ‘deep acting’. “Underneath the surface of working co-operatively, team-members are showing off personally, usually to a manager or superior, who is judging team performance.” This is the ‘feigned solidarity’ of the modern workplace.

The way to renew true co-operation is through shared action: repairing ways in which we can engage with others; restoring space in which we can be more responsive to those around; encouraging forms of commitment and; finding new ways to tap into the deep desire we all have for belonging and some form of community around us.

Sennett is a master, in awe of the world around him and aware of how we can be so much more, if we can be ourselves.

Faesten Dic

I am off today on a hospital run for someone close – walking this morning with dog and valentine on the Faesten Dic, a raised ditch in a timeless wood constructed by the Saxons in Kent to keep out the Roman Londoners.

20120214-135135.jpg

Green Day

On my way now to a seminar we are feeding into on the idea of co-operative currencies – green money. One innovation is to link the value of these to units of renewable energy, so it is good timing that Res Publica publishes a great report today on the context and relevance of community renewable energy.

Because I was stupid

Very pleased to launch the consumer investigation #labourconsumer – for the labour party this afternoon.

A bit long, sorry, but here were my comments at the launch:

“I had three young children in the house and friends around when my water pipes burst. I called the first company in the yellow pages and with water swimming around, asked me to sign a form as they needed to bring a digger in to do the work and it would cost more than a personal cheque from me could be guaranteed for. I signed. Three hours later, it was done. Three days later, and dry, the company took £1,000 out of my account. The next day, a further £2,000 – all I had.”

Now, this could have been anyone, but it wasn’t. It was me.

I became a consumer champion, not because I was savvy but because I was stupid.

I do believe in the power of consumer action. I was part of the team that started the Fairtrade Mark over twenty years ago – now the Rolls Royce of ethical labels, benefiting 1.15 million producers typically organised in co-operatives and their families in developing countries. I was co-author of Consumer Kids – a book that ended the sale of Playboy goods to primary school girls by W H Smith and led to new rules that prevent companies recruiting children to sell their products, like the Barbie MP3, to their friends at home and school.

I was the last Chief Executive of the National Consumer Council, before it was folded into Consumer Focus, which I led the founding of. My time there left me with a huge respect for those who work in the field of consumer and competition policy, often in the face of corporate power and bureaucratic opposition – for Which? For Citizens Advice and many others.

I still believe in consumer action. I represent a range of successful, co-operative enterprises that are owned by over twelve million consumers. And I am backing the Move Your Money campaign which today is holding a protest action across town at Barclays Bank.

But successful markets and successful enterprise is a dance between two – consumers can’t protect their rights without the backing of the law and government. That is why I am pleased to have been asked to advise the Labour Party, as an independent voice through this consumer investigation.

The advice will come from listening to those working in the field. But I bring to the table some lessons from my years since my rogue plumber. This is what I have learned.

1. We don’t need new rules – we have to enforce the ones we have got. As the NAO has shown, we have a stretched and broken patchwork of enforcement across the country.

2. All too often, when one consumer is ripped off, there are many others who are fleeced in the same way. So it makes no sense to have a system of redress that is based on individual complaints alone. We need collective redress – or what I call Portuguese style class actions.

A growing range of countries have opened up to the responsible use of class actions on behalf of consumers. These include Portugal (the first country in Europe to do so), the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Italy and, further afield, Ontario, Australia and the United States. These regimes are all designed to improve on some of the downsides of the better-known US model, where damages can be multiplied and decided on by juries. Class actions across these countries, using the opt-out model, have ranged from handling the aftermath of disasters, including the Costa Concordia in Italy, through to faulty medical products, including breast implants in Australia, and low-value items, below £200 per consumer in Denmark.

3. The new dodgy practices tend not to be just the local rogue traders of previous years that may show up, shown up, on TV shows. They are big name, often global companies and they pick our pockets in new and more subtle ways, including:

– bargain then rip-off contracts that lock us in to a poor deal

– micro-charging that involve making pennies and pounds out of millions of customers.

4. Even if we have busted cartels and limited monopolies, the UK has a long way to go to have competitive markets. The example of the pensions industry which has up to sixteen layers of intermediaries dealing with the pension of an individual customer, each taking their own cut and paying their own bonuses is a case of the City getting away with gross inefficiencies and creating consumer loss in the process.