Some years ago, I was starting a new consumer organisation, which took the name of Consumer Focus. This was the daughter of the National Consumer Council, which I had led, and was to be a state body here in the UK.
A new organisation is full of hope and life for the future, but often empty, except for what individuals bring to it, of insight about the past. We look forward more comfortably than we look back. So I asked the historian, Birkbeck Professor Frank Trentmann, to write a Letter from the roots and experiences of consumer action in the past.
What Frank sent, in 2008, pointed to areas of opportunity, but was cautionary:
“Instances of consumer representation can be counted on a single hand. In Britain, the final stages of the First World War saw the establishment of a Consumers’ Council, which was formally dissolved in 1920. At the municipal level, the rising wave of municipalized services made no provision for consumer representation as such. Consumer Leagues went into decline, and consumer questions migrated to other domains recognised by the state – such as housing. Consumer representation played little more than the role of a footnote in the nationalisation of industries after World War Two. Michael Young’s National Consumer Council in 1975 can be seen as reversals of this trend, but the overall pattern remains overwhelming. Compared to other policy domains and other dimensions of citizenship, consumption occupies a marginal place in the formal apparatus of power.”
He wasn’t wrong. I left Consumer Focus when the set-up was complete, but within two years the organisation had been axed by the Coalition Government.
Frank went on to say that “like other social movements, consumer advocates tend to see their history as a progressive path of awakening and achievement. Certainly, the history of consumers is rich in achievements. But it is not only a progressive saga of democracy, welfare and fairness upward and forward. The inter-war years, for example, saw the rise of a new imperialist conservative movement of housewives and shoppers. Several hundred thousand conservative women urged housewives to buy British and imperial goods. They organised national shopping weeks, initiated public fetes, rallies and ceremonies, with empire pudding competitions and Kenyan coffee tasting stalls. British housewives, they urged, should not simply think about the cost to themselves. Consumption involved public responsibilities. Shoppers had a duty to use their power as consumers for the strength of the empire and the British race. Here was a racist antecedent of FairTrade.”
The research Frank Trentmann has completed over many years now has culminated in an extraordinary book that he has now published – to critical acclaim, most recently in the Financial Times. The book is called Empire of Things: how we became a world of consumers, from the fifteenth century to the twenty first.
At over eight hundred pages, it is comprehensive – who needs War and Peace? – and I think fair to say, a landmark treatment of the history of consumer experience and action over time.
I loved it. The book has all the colour of eclectic curiosity, cataloguing everyday life across cultures and continents but also the wisdom of wide-ranging commentary and dry insight and humour. All of today’s commentary around consumer life is gently tested.
Clothing, for me, emerges as one of the heroes of the book. For many over time, sumptuary laws set out what you could wear, depending on your status. In Nuremberg in 1693, local patricians set down what kind of cap women could wear, with ladies of noble families permitted to wear a silken cap with a sable or marten border. Wives and daughters of ‘respectable merchants could also wear a velvet cap, but were prohibited from adding gold lace or buckles. Shopkeepers were limited to rims of simple fur, not marten, with neither silver nor gold in use.
These lasted longer in the US – the 1735 South Carolina Negro Act forbade African Americans from wearing their master’s cast-off clothes and restricted them to white Welsh plains and other cheap fabrics. Even so, slaves found their own identity, spending a little hard-earned cash made from raising chickens or growing cotton on the side, on silk ribbons and looking glasses.
I gave a lecture last night to a warm and wonderful audience of four hundred people at Keele University as part of their World Affairs series. To start, I told something of my story, a personal view of the early days of the Fairtrade Mark…
I am not well-known, a politician or an academic guru. When I left education, I had a degree in philosophy and two words of career advice from the university (“good luck”).
I was shallow, middle class, but a Live Aid generation kid – concerned and also optimistic about most things.
One of the initiatives I helped to get going, with a team of others, was an idea to engage consumers in the challenge of global development.
We had the oddest inspiration which was the quality label, Woolmark.
At a time when nylon, polyester and acrylic were on the rise, sheep farmers in Australia recruited a jury of designers and launched an international competition to create the Woolmark. One of the jury, Franco Grignani, couldn’t resist and entered the competition under a pseudonym. He died in 1999, never admitting he was the author.
What we wanted to do, as one of the team leaders, Martin Newman, said was to do for global justice what Woolmark had done for sweaters.
You wouldn’t have given us much odds – if you were a pessimist that is.
Of course, fair trade was available already in specialist outlets, thanks to pioneers such as Traidcraft and Michael Barrat Brown’s TWIN. We were encouraged by the example of a coffee label that had gone mainstream produced by a co-operative of indigenous farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico (UCIRI, Union de Comunidades Indígenas de la Región del Istmo), sold to supermarket customers in the Netherlands under the label of Max Havelaar.
To succeed, we thought we needed a different name. Max Havelaar is famous in Holland, and its former colonies, as someone who resisted Dutch imperialism. But not outside.
We also thought that we needed not just a label but a set of fair trade rules that would form the basis of a system of certification.
So we called it the Fairtrade Mark. It was me that removed the space between ‘fair’ and ‘trade’, which still pains me a little, from an English language perspective, when I see it on products, but meant that it could be trade marked as this was not a word in everyday usage.
The development agencies backed the project. Meanwhile, pioneers such as Equal Exchange, TWIN and Traidcraft did the hard work of developing one of the first products, Cafédirect, with an emphasis on quality, ready to carry the Mark.
What we faced, initially, were pessimists. I remember one supermarket chief saying to a colleague, Pauline Tiffen, that he wasn’t going to stock fair trade goods, because only vicars would be mad enough to buy them.
He was wrong. Well, half wrong. The vicars have been a good market for us.
Marks and Spencer couldn’t believe that any label would be more trusted than Marks and Spencer (only a short period before investigations into workers rights and child labour hit the headlines)
The Co-op was the first retailer to open the doors
Today, fairtrade is the best known social label in the world, benefiting over seven million people in impoverished farming communities around the world.
Three quarters of all fair trade is now produced by co-operatives.
Of course, it is not all perfect. Beyond fair trade, the wider position of 500 million smallholder farmers around the world and their terms of trade has not always improved. The extension of the mark to plantations, such as for bananas, brought questions around labour rights, particularly for seasonal workers, the US has split off from the international fairtrade movement, in part to work more closely with corporate retail outlets, and there has always been the challenge of turning trade into lasting development.
But it has value. A life spent in ethical business and markets has made me now, what I call, a ‘sceptical optimist’. I believe that the fear that you can’t do everything shouldn’t prevent you from doing something.
2015 was a year of renewal for the UK’s co-operative sector.
Together we successfully lobbied government on vital policy changes, generated mass media coverage during Co-operatives Fortnight, pioneered the Fair Tax Mark, introduced a best practice standard for community share issues, secured a £1 million fund to support business development – and much more.
This year, 2016, we are setting three resolutions at Co-operatives UK to strengthen the foundations of a robust and growing co-operative sector which can give people of all walks in life more ownership and control.
1. Promote participatory business models
A strong co-operative sector needs a policy framework that allows co-operatives to compete on a level playing field with other businesses. For 2016 we will be focusing on building the case for transferring government responsibility for all co-ops, currently scattered across departments, to just one, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
With elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we will be working closely with co-ops and partners in devolved nations to make the case for a more co-operative economy, monitoring the parties’ manifestos in the run up to the elections and working to engage with the new governments after May.
Our policy work will be supported by campaigns that bring together co-operatives across the UK to create a positive profile for the sector. Co-operatives Fortnight, from 18 June to 2 July, will focus on encouraging co‑operatives to run a ‘Big Co-op Clean’ and asking members of the public to ‘choose co-operative. We will be helping to spread a global marketing campaign for co-ops, while research on co-operative innovation and performance will provide a platform to promote the benefits of sharing ownership through co-operatives.
2. Develop the social economy
This year we’ll be working with co-operatives of all kinds to develop a long-term strategy to start, strengthen and grow the UK’s co-operatives – a national development strategy created with and by co-operative organisations, from retail giants right through to working men’s clubs, wholefood collectives and sports clubs.
The first element is a £1 million three-year partnership with The Co-operative Bank to provide business support for co-ops through comprehensive online resources, one-to-one support, peer mentoring and training, which will be available in late February.
And core to all this will be continuing to provide our members with leadership and expert advice on governing high performing co-operatives – supporting best practice in constitutional governance, helping co-operatives make the most of their people though quality HR, supporting innovation in member engagement and pioneering community shares.
3. Unite co-operatives and our partners in business
As the network for co-operatives, 2016 will again see us bringing together people from co-operatives of all shapes and sizes. With major events like the Co-operative Retail Conference in March, Co-operative Congress in June and the Practitioners Forum in November, as well as more than 40 workshops and training events, there are opportunities to connect, share and learn with co-ops right across the UK.
And our focus will be on bringing into membership of Co-operatives UK those co-ops that need the support. Farmer-owned co-operatives – which are involved in everything from grain and livestock to joint purchasing – will be a particular area of focus for 2016 as we develop a package of services to help give them a national voice and specialist business support.
A year of working together
On these three priorities we can achieve more together than we can alone. As businesses based on partnership, our members know that better than anyone. 2016 will be a year of working together.
Six weeks ago, a country new to the world declared its independence and set about developing a constitution for a sustainable and fairer society.
The country is the Independent State of Jungle (ISoJ) and if you haven’t heard of it, that may be because it is rather small – an acre of land and allotments in Penryn, Cornwall.
The founders are members of the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union, who crowdsourced their constitution through an open deliberative process over the course of a week.
The questions they have explored are exactly the ones that the UK or any nation, if born into today’s world, would want to address. How should decisions be made? Is there a common purpose to the nation? What are the rights and the responsibilities of being a citizen? What relationship should exist with the wider environment?
What emerged is a dreamer’s charter, with logic on its side. When it comes to education, for example, the consensus was not to separate out teachers and students in strictly defined roles, but to allow people to do both, always learning and always teaching.
In the spirit of openness, the constitution starts with the declaration that “we all have ideas that are wrong, but we will change them.”
The “sharing of knowledge”, it continues, “is integral to our growth. We are all teachers; we are all students. We inspire and encourage a critical consciousness…Listen before you object. Think before you speak.”
The model of democracy it offers is one that opens out to a wider range of voices. “We believe all decisions should be made by consensus. The consequences of our decisions for the Earth and all life must be taken into account. The three guiding principles that govern all of our decision makings are environmental responsibility, social equality, and economic justice. We will resist all suffering in the world.”
The new nation is Cornish hedged around its perimeter and includes an eco-build shed of straw-bales and cob constructed during the summer. The country is named after the JungleHouse Project, a mobile centre for environmental activism, creativity, art and ideas – most recently seen in Paris during the climate change negotiations – designed to be an open space to share ideas, experience and develop solutions.
2016 could be a good year for dreamers. In a wider mood of insecurity and fear, hope can play a surprisingly powerful role. There is a pedigree too for utopians as November 2016 marks the five hundredth anniversary of the publication in Latin of the book Utopia by Thomas More.
More presents a traveller’s tale of an ideal society living on a fictitious island. More’s Utopia (‘no where’) is an island two hundred miles across, with fifty four cities, and organised on very different lines that More imagined to the Tudor England he inhabited.
The term ‘utopian’ was used by Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century Communist Manifesto as a term of abuse. But utopian thinking has lived on, in art, in radical thinking in economics and philosophy, in literature, such as in the field of feminist science fiction.
Imagination is the most powerful tool that we have for social change. By re-imagining the world around us, we can put it together again in a different way – first in our minds, then in our stories and ultimately in reality. Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy is an example of new fiction, equipping us for action today by helping us to imagine how a tomorrow shaped by climate change might turn out.
A celebration of modern utopianism across 2016 is lined up to launch later this month, to mark the anniversary at Somerset House in London. It is organised in concert with King’s College London and The Courtauld Institute of Art. An international research conference on the same theme is due in July, with other events worldwide.
Simon Burall of Involve, the participation charity, argues that 2016, with all the tensions and constitutional questions of the UK today, is exactly the time to explore new ways to develop a more visionary, deliberative democracy – a scaled up version of the Cornish experiment.
Today’s diggers and dreamers like the allotments-turned-Independent State of Jungle are inspired by what Roberto Unger, the Brazilian theorist, calls the ‘spirit of possibility’.
And they are not alone. Paul Hawken in his book, Blessed Unrest suggests that there are probably two million organisations in the world of people at the local level who are experimenting with co-operative economics, working to protect local ecological systems, supporting indigenous peoples, fighting for social justice in different ways.
So, if you want my tip for 2016, it is to invest: invest in hope and dreams.
The idea of regional banks, a bank that recycles savings in the area and boosts the local economy, is one that has created a buzz in recent years. Now, there is a new co-operative society that aims to make this happen. The Community Savings Bank Association is testing public and institutional interest in all regions and nations of the UK in new banks that would offer a full and competitive service…and be customer-owned.
James M Moore, Chairman of the Community Savings Bank Association, is encouraging people to register if they have an interest in a customer-owned, co-operative savings bank for their region.
These would be the first customer-owned co-operative society banks in the UK. The rules for the new society are registered with the Financial Conduct Authority.
While The Co-operative Bank has an active commitment to co-operative and ethical values, including the launch of an excellent new campaign this month on financial abuse, it now operates with investor ownership and was never a primary bank that was a customer-owned society in the way that the great international co-operative banks, such as Desjardins in Canada, have been. Across Europe, for example, co-operative banks have around 20% of the retail banking market and offer a lifeline to regions that benefit from keeping money local.
Credit union membership is growing in the UK, and building societies remain with good roots in some regions but a full financial service bank owned by customers would be something very different as an offer to what they and the mainstream banks provide.
One model is the Airdrie Savings Bank, the sole surviving and celebrated local trustee savings bank, operating in Scotland. This is says James Moore, “a one hundred and eighty years old pilot” that shows how regional banking can succeed.
The co-operative has identified the key regions it wants to explore, and is now looking for champions and potential partners, before moving to raise capital for the first of the new regional co-operative savings banks.
A short video with an outline of the programme is set out on https://vimeo.com/141783823
You can register your interest on http://www.csba.co.uk
It’s been a great day’s work for Fair Tax campaigners.
The letter that I and other business leaders signed, published today in the Guardian, pressed for European action in support of the principles of being transparent and responsible around the tax we pay. Co-ops UK, as with a number of other co-operatives and businesses such as Lush and SSE, are accredited with the Fair Tax Mark.
We then saw a debate in the European Parliament, followed by a vote this morning. Encouragingly, the Parliament voted overwhelmingly for a basket of measures that included the development of a Fair Tax Payers Label in Europe – inspired by the UK Fair Tax Mark.
The measures were detailed in a Tax Report from the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. Both the size of the majority (500 for, and just 122 against) and the diverse political support, from right to left, means that the European Commission will need to look at action more seriously than ever before, in the three months they now have to respond.
If you know of businesses that would like to get ahead of the competition and secure a Fair Tax Mark, it would be a good time to pass the word.
This is no twenty four hour wonder. Last week the Institute for Business Ethics released their latest polling of the public. Once again ‘tax avoidance’ is the number one concern of the UK public when it comes to corporate responsibility.